08/02/2013 04:09 am ET Updated Oct 01, 2013

ReThink Review: Europa Report - Danger and Discovery in Space

In many sci-fi thrillers, danger takes the shape of an alien, a virus, or some sort of space madness that picks off the members of a spaceship's crew one by one. But when you think about it, isn't space travel alone -- where only fragile and complex technology can protect you from the most hostile environment imaginable -- a harrowing enough prospect on its own? The makers of Europa Report would probably agree, as their film strives for absolute realism using fantastic set design and a documentary "found footage"-style in its depiction of a manned mission to Europa, a moon of Jupiter with liquid water that presents the best chance for finding extraterrestrial life in our solar system. There's no need for face-suckers or chest-exploders when a torn space suit or a slight miscalculation are lethal enough. But for the six-person international crew of the Europa mission, those risks are worth it to answer one of mankind's most important questions about our place in the universe. Watch my ReThink Review of Europa Report below (transcript following)


Europa Report doesn't refer to a European soccer league or a study of the European economy, but one of Jupiter's moons, which scientists have concluded has a hot, molten core. That means that beneath Europa's thick crust of ice, there's liquid water and super-hot undersea vents, much like those on earth where it's believed early life on this planet may have began. That means Europa may be the most likely place for us to find life in our solar system, and Europa Report is a dramatization of what a mission to Europa searching for it might be like. I call it a dramatization because while the trailer might cause some to write off Europa Report as simply a found-footage horror movie set in space, the filmmakers' attention to detail and their respect for the spirit of exploration makes Europa Report something quite special.

That's not to say Europa Report isn't a found-footage thriller, because it is. In the film, an international group of astronauts is sent on a privately-funded, years-long mission to Europa, hoping to bring back proof of extraterrestrial life on Jupiter's fourth largest moon. Something went wrong along the way and the mission lost communication with earth, but using declassified footage captured by the spacecraft's many interior and exterior cameras, investigators have been able to piece together what actually happened. Europa Report is supposedly made from this footage, which is framed by interviews with the mission's chief earthbound officers (played by Embeth Davidtz and Dan Fogler). The six-person crew onboard the ship are played by Christian Camargo, Anamaria Marinca, Michael Nyqvist, Daniel Wu, Karolina Wydra, and Sharlto Copley.

While most sci-fi horror movies would have an alien or a mysterious virus stalking the crew, the makers of Europa Report are smart enough to know that real-life space exploration is inherently interesting and dangerous enough that you don't need to add much for it to be dramatic. Whether it's the jolt of the ship's bone-rattling liftoff, watching how the crewmembers relate to each other during their downtime, or rendering the eerily beautiful surface of Europa, everything in the Europa Report, especially the meticulously designed spaceship set, is focused on absolute realism, and it's an impressive feat to behold.

Without sci-fi horror tropes, Europa Report more closely resembles movies like 2001 or Apollo 13, as the astronauts do the best with the tools they have in order to survive and complete their mission. So when the crew is confronted by difficult questions and serious complications, as they are during a harrowing spacewalk to repair the communications system, you get the sense that you're watching intelligent, highly-trained professionals forced to make split-second decisions that could mean life, death, or the premature end of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to one of mankind's most nagging questions -- whether we're alone in the universe.

Though that's not to say that there isn't extraterrestrial life in Europa Report, as the astronauts find tantalizing evidence that life on Europa may be more complex and diverse than scientists had theorized. But as complications compound, the question increasingly becomes how much the crew is willing to risk their lives to help mankind make an enormous scientific leap forward.

Europa Report seems to touch on so many different genres that it may take a while to get oriented. Maybe that's because, in the end, Europa Report isn't so much about science fiction, aliens, or survival as it is about the insatiable human urge to explore and learn, to look up at the sky and ask big questions, and take the biggest risks imaginable to answer them. And even though the astronauts' mission is privately funded with billions in technology, support, and manpower behind them, Europa Report is about the spirit of modern-day adventurers and their willingness to travel farther and farther from home, chasing the intoxicating lures of discovery and knowledge, for the betterment of us all.

Follow ReThink Reviews on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.