Europa, which orbits Jupiter, is the sixth-largest moon in the solar system. It’s also the destination of the six-person international space mission in “Europa Report.”
The plot’s straightforward enough. If outer-space procedural were a genre, much of “Europa Report” would qualify. The mission takes off from Earth. It lands on Europa and investigates. It takes off — or maybe it doesn’t (straightforwardness isn’t the same thing as predictability). What isn’t straightforward about the plot is either hackneyed, implausible, or both. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a good deal of suspense. What is it about the sight of a person putting on a space suit that’s always good for an “uh-oh” from viewers?
Its formal properties are what set apart “Europa Report.” Director Sebastián Cordero presents this material with maximum trickeration. He wants a docudrama look — note that second word in the title, “report” — so he throws in all sorts of visual modes to give the impression we’re watching reportage rather than a feature film. There are split screens, tiled screens, surveillance footage, computer simulations, video, news reports, talking-head interviews, time codes, and, for good measure, the occasional canted angle.
Technique largely does the work of imagination. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The nuts and bolts of “Europa Report” may feel very familiar, but the movie doesn’t look quite like anything else. Even in its frequent resort to “found” footage, it’s unlike the many other films that have taken the approach. There’s nothing shaky about Cordero’s camerawork.
Sci-fi tends to blow either hot or cold. “Europa Report” is in the cold camp, all smooth surfaces and understated emotions. Cordero plays overt tribute to the chilliest of all sci-fi classics, “2001,” by having one of the astronauts cue up Strauss’s “Blue Danube” waltz. The crew is in on the joke as much as the audience is. It’s one of the few times they get to lighten up. On board are some quite capable actors — Michael Nyqvist (Mikael Blomkvist, in the Swedish version of the Stieg Larsson novels), Sharlto Copley (“District 9,” “Elysium”), Anamaria Marinca (“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”) — but they’re all pretty much colorless, in that astronaut sort of way. It’s part of the film’s striving after verisimilitude.
The one concession to personality is Embeth Davidtz. She’s the mission supervisor back on Earth, which means she’s seen in a series of tight closeups, talking to the camera. It’s a clever device to help vary things rhythmically and visually. It also turns inside out the film’s basic spatial scheme: Where the crew is enclosed in the spaceship, she’s enclosed in the frame. Either way, there’s a sense of growing confinement that all the trickeration can disguise without ever quite relieving. The crew has no problem leaving Earth’s gravity. The audience does, though.