Elon Musk has promised to put the first people on Mars in the 2020s, provided he can find the volunteers. And you’ve considered going, haven’t you? Earth’s probably a goner, after all, and you’ve always admired David Bowie’s music. You don’t get seasick; your life insurance policy contains no specific extraterrestrial exemption clauses; and Google confirms that potatoes will grow in any old poop — not just Matt Damon’s. You can make it work!

But before you sign the waiver, you might want to prepare yourself for the realities of interplanetary travel. May I recommend a two-hour course on everything that could possibly go wrong courtesy of a really interesting and suspenseful hard-sf space-exploration thriller, Europa Report.

In the near future, an unnamed international space agency launches Europa One, the first manned interplanetary mission. The destination is Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Probes have detected liquid water — a possible sign of life — under Europa’s icy surface (an actual 2011 scientific discovery), and humanity is curious about exotic bass fishing opportunities.

Europa Report details the voyage and fate of the six astronauts onboard Europa One through found footage recovered from the ship’s onboard video camera systems, which cycle through a few key views: a stark ladder, the bridge, helmet interiors, and some (conveniently) grainy exterior shots of the ship’s rotating mid-section (which explains the onboard gravity in the living quarters). The sparse camerawork suits the laboratory-like atmosphere of the ship — emphasized by an austere score by Bear McCreary (who also does the music for The Walking Dead) — and lends a detached realism to the scenes of panic when disasters begin to unfold.

The plot gives a neat explanation for the found footage approach: early in the mission, Europa One’s communication system is wiped out by a solar flare — a problem that gets temporarily fixed later on in the mission, allowing for the data to be transmitted back in one burst — the eponymous “Europa Report”. The movie plays like a documentary recreation of the mission, with space agency bigwigs piecing together the events via voiceover and a few scenes of to-camera narration.
With the exception of an obligatory grizzly old cosmonaut who’s seen it all before, Europa One’s crew are six young, fresh-faced men and women who, in any other deep-space adventure movie, would be flirting like crazy and wriggling out of their space suits before the second act. Well, put that thought out of your mind, because the only chemistry in Europa Report concerns spilled rocket-fuel: this is a serious movie, about science. Unlike movies like Gravity or Interstellar, where scientific plausibility is a means to dramatic ends, Europa Report’s drama is very much in service of scientific wonderment. Take this electric exchange between two crew members:

Blok: What would you do if you get out there and find nothing?
Xu: Well, even if we found nothing it’s an effective discovery.

Put your popcorn down folks, because this might be the first time in cinema history that a character has espoused the virtues of the null hypothesis — his motivation is literally nothing. Try getting that past your screenwriting prof.

For all the geekery, the characters aren’t robots. We get a few stock scenes of bonding, crew-members recording messages for loved ones at home, that kind of thing, but only the bare minimum required for us to care when things start to fall apart. There is a brief but sensitive portrayal of a grief-stricken character descending into possible psychosis; another scene hits pretty hard when crew are forced to stand by, helplessly watching a doomed comrade slip away; some moments come close to horror. The acting is solid from a relatively low-key international cast (including South African Sharlto Copley who was brilliant as Wikus Van De Merwe in District 9.) The only weak links are some of the to-camera narrations: badly delivered lines and some of the actors playing the mission-control bigwigs are miscast.

Ecuadorian director Sebastián Cordero consulted with numerous experts to ensure that realistic technical details are woven into the plot in intuitive ways. For example, the surface radiation on Europa (a lethal 5.4 sieverts per day) provides the tension in one key scene where a character risks radiation poisoning to save the mission. I learned other stuff watching this movie: the toxicity of hydrazine, the delta-V required to perform an Earth-Jupiter Hohmann transfer (look it up), and how long a human can survive in space without a suit. A few liberties are taken on the surface of Europa, and purists’ eyebrows will raise at the somewhat “speculative” ending, but by that point the movie has earned its right to some poetic license.

Europa Report is a good, thoughtful movie, and looks absolutely astounding given its tiny budget of $10m. Some very shrewd film-making decisions made this possible, from the use of mostly static-camera found footage, to borrowing stock video of NASA’s Juno spacecraft to represent the launch of Europa One. Resourceful film-makers working with low budgets have produced some of the most memorable science fiction movies ever made, from Carpenter’s student-days Dark Star (which cost $60,000 to make), the modern masterpiece Moon (<$5m), and 2004’s cult hit Primer ($7000!). Europa Report is a worthy addition to this tradition — it contains just about enough thrills to entertain the average filmgoer, and science fiction purists should certainly seek it out.

Dan’s rating: 7 Stars (7 / 10)

Director: Sebastián Cordero
Writer: Philip Gelatt
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Michael Nyqvist, Christian Camargo, Karolina Wydra, Anamaria Marinca
Release Date: 27 June 2013
Runtime: 1h 58m
MPAA Rating: PG-13