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“I saw something outside the ship.” Those ominous word — or a variation on them — have been spoken in many different kinds of movies when danger looms on the horizon. In the nifty new sci-fi thriller, Europa Report, those words are uttered by a crew member after their spaceship lands on Jupiter’s moon Europa, where they have traveled on a mission to discover whether life exists on other planets. The basic story has been told many times before, but it’s intriguingly retold by screenwriter Philip Gelatt and director Sebastian Cordero in this low-budget, bare-bones rendering of a familiar theme. The lack of big names in the cast may hurt the picture at the box office, but it could develop a cult following.
At the beginning of the film, we learn that disaster struck the Europa mission 19 months after blastoff, and the rest of the film is a flashback constructed of rediscovered film recorded by the crew on their journey. The entire story is told through this video footage shot by various cameras inside the spacecraft, so the film could be described as a found-footage thriller in the tradition of The Blair Witch Project and other horror movies. While the film is inevitably claustrophobic, this actually enhances the tension. The few shots outside the ship, either in space or on the icy surfaces of Europa, are strikingly designed by an inventive special-effects team. But the heart of the story is in the interiors, and Cordero uses split-screen techniques and skillful editing to sustain energy.
The story itself is a variation on Ten Little Indians, which was of course also the basic plot gimmick of the first Alien. Crew members are dispatched one by one as they explore the creepy, unknown atmosphere of Europa. In the end this turns out to be another sci-fi monster movie, but the monster is wisely kept offscreen for most of the running time. Although this minimalist approach may not please gore freaks, it makes for a more subtle suspense picture.
Cordero has assembled an impressive international cast that includes Chinese action star Daniel Wu, Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist (from the original version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days), and South African actor Sharlto Copley, who made a splash in District 9. All of the actors are excellent, though Copley’s farewell to his family when he realizes he is doomed is the emotional highlight of the picture, and this soliloquy is followed by a melancholy, beautiful shot of him drifting slowly away from the spacecraft.
Technical credits are first-rate. Cinematographer Enrique Chediak (127 Hours) and production designer Eugenio Caballero, who won an Oscar for his work on Pan’s Labyrinth, contribute to the movie’s visual vitality. Bear McCreary’s tense, haunting score is also a major asset. (Film buffs will appreciate a brief musical homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.) Some viewers might have preferred a stronger finale, but the movie manages to raise provocative scientific questions about our place in the universe while also delivering some neat, understated thrills.
Opens: Friday, Aug. 2 (Magnet Releasing).
Cast: Daniel Wu, Sharlto Copley, Christian Camargo, Karolina Wydra, Michael Nyqvist, Anamaria Marinca, Embeth Davidtz.
Director: Sebastian Cordero.
Screenwriter: Philip Gelatt.
Producers: Kevin Misher, Ben Browning.
Executive producers: Michael Maher, Jeremy Kipp Walker.
Director of photography: Enrique Chediak.
Production designer: Eugenio Caballero.
Music: Bear McCreary.
Costume designer: Anna Terrazas.
Editors: Aaron Yanes, Alexander Kopit, Craig McKay, Livio Sanchez.
PG-13, 90 minutes.
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