The year 2013 has been a surprisingly bad one for intelligent science fiction, save for one stellar exception. Sure, it's been an alright year for action movies tinged with sci-fi. If all you want are people talking into ear pieces between explosions, Star Trek Into Darkness, After Earth, Iron Man 3, Pacific Rim and Elysium certainly get that job done. If you want some actual science in your science fiction, though, the only 2013 movie (so far; Gravity is still coming) that delivers is Europa Report.
And oh how it does deliver.
Directed by Sebastián Cordero written by Philip Gelatt, and featuring a standout cast including Sharlto Copley, Michael Nyqvist, Christian Camargo,Embeth Davidtz and Anamaria Marinca, Europa Report should become a new benchmark of how to take a familiar idea and make it fresh and exciting despite the budget. In this case it involves a crew of astronauts traveling to Europa, Jupiter's ice-covered moon to take samples. Things go wrong along the way. And yes, we've all seen the "astronauts on a doomed mission" story before, but we've never seen it done quite like this.
Europa Report is presented as a documentary about the mission, but before you get flashes of Apollo 18 and close this window, this isn't just another found-footage movie. There's no shaky-cam crap. There's no "Why are they still filming?" nonsense. Cordero's film gets around all the normal pitfalls by being a thoroughly convincing re-creation of a plausible scientific endeavor. The majority of the movie is filmed from innumerable cameras mounted all over the Europa One spaceship, and while it can take 15 or so minutes to adjust to, eventually the illusion takes full effect and it feels like you're just watching a bunch of people on a space station. It's intimate and thrilling and never once will you think "I wish this was filmed a different way," arguably the highest compliment you can ever pay to a found-footage movie.
Everything about the way Cordero crafts and presents their world and their mission is convincing. It's a mighty impressive film on a technical level, and it makes you wonder why movies with bigger budgets struggle. The whole production was filmed in a warehouse in Brooklyn, but it looks like it was put together on the finest sound stages the industry has to offer. For example, take a look at this exclusive clip Magnolia provided us from the film of Sharlto Copley giving a quick tour of Europa One.
That's a pretty damned impressive set, is it not? The moving parts, the convincing lack of gravity, the depth of field. Wow.
Of course all of the movie magic in the world wouldn't really matter if Gelatt's script didn't have the brains to back it up and Cordero's cast didn't have the chops to deliver it all. Thankfully they pull it off across the board. None of the ordeals the crew faces seem forced for drama's sake. Even when the fiction side starts to take over and the s**t really hits the fan, everything that happens still serves the film's core purpose, which is to present a believable account of a handful of brave men and women risking their lives to better mankind.
And ultimately, that's what makes Europa Report the best science fiction movie in recent years. It's not the obsessive level of detail put into building the sets. It's not the plausible science that powers it all. It's not the riveting terror the team are increasingly put through. It's that Gelatt's script is optimistic about scientific pursuits. Lately there's been this constant fear of science in movies, as though exploring and pushing boundaries is a bad thing and the people who do it should be punished for it. Europa Report never does this. Even when crew members are dying, they still keep the mission in mind. They--and by extension us--are in awe of what they're experiencing on behalf of mankind, even if it's the last thing they do. It's a relief to see a science fiction movie about sacrificing for the greater good of discovery, instead of yet another one about men reaching too far and being killed for their audacity.
It should go without saying, but I highly, highly recommend anyone who takes science fiction seriously to rent Europa Report (it's on all major VOD platforms) or see it in a theater if it's playing near you. Even if you end up being only half as enamored with it as I clearly am, you'll walk away feeling like you've seen something special.