WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS.
It's rare for a film set in outer space to stay within realistic boundaries. There's a million movies that begin with a crew of astronauts coping with the stresses of their jobs, only to careen off into science fiction lore so complicated that any humanity the story had is lost. 2013's Europa Report, a thriller told largely through "security camera" shots of a spaceship's crew, tells a story in space that actually feels plausible, though it's no less thrilling than high-concept space operas.
Ecuadorian director Sebastián Cordero, whose previous film Crónicas had been co-produced by Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón, draws a tight thriller that finds its scares in claustrophobia, anticipation, and arrhythmic editing.
The movie is very well acted by a cast that includes Sharlto Copley (District 9, Elysium) and the late Michael Nyqvist (John Wick, the original The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). And its final scene sets it apart from most contemporary films about space exploration. It's tonally unique, stylistically clean and concise, and it doesn't waste its time on lavish special effects or heavy-handed dialogue about space.
From the first few scenes, we learn that the crew of the Europa, a fictional ship sent to find signs of life on one of Jupiter's moons, has disappeared. We hear from several earth-bound professionals in a documentary-style roundup about how the world is coping with having lost a group of astronauts. Everyone on Earth is panicked, and they're beginning to mourn the crew. A title card tells us, almost Blair Witch-style, that "thousands of hours" of new footage has recently been declassified. The film begins with that footage, already having established that we're about to watch something insane unfold, something that cut contact between the ship's crew and Earth.
The crew members themselves, hailing from nations all around the world, are mourning the loss of one member. That death, a bleary-eyed Rosa (Anamaria Marinca) explains to the security camera on board, has completely destroyed any excitement the crew felt about exploration. It also explains why the film feels contemplative and tense in its first act. When we finally get to watch the death that terrifies the crew in footage we saw at the beginning of the film, we listen to the character's entire last, shaky monologue. As we watch the ship fade into the abyss of space, we actually hear his breathing slow and finally stop.
Before that sudden death scene, Europa Report spends its time exploring the minutiae of living in space. We see the crew exercising on stationary bikes, lying in their bunks and staring at the ceiling, taking their vitals and trying to come up with new things to say to each other. It's impossible to watch the movie and not ask yourself how much isolation you could stomach before losing your mind.
The cinematography in Europa Report is so clean and elegant, done by 127 Hours' Enrique Chediak, that it's hard to tell why the film isn't revered as a soft sci-fi classic. Following a crew of characters from around the world, the film builds an image of our entire planet united behind a single mission to space.
The only notable flaw in the film is that it takes a smidge too long to get the real action, but once it does, we've learned enough about the central characters that their individual fates are legitimately disturbing. It makes Europa Report feel like a buffet of intergalactic dangers; in space, it suggests, there are more ways to end up in peril than you could even imagine.
Though the mission of the Europa is to track down extraterrestrial life, we don't even see an alien until the film's last few moments. Europa Report is ultimately not a monster movie, and it's not a thriller about man's hubris as we launch ourselves into a cold and unfeeling galaxy. It's a love letter to the pursuit of science, specifically honoring the desire to discover new corners of our biology and expand humankind's knowledge base at all costs.
In fact, when the film's "final girl" archetype, Rosa, is left in the control room with a shaky signal connecting her to Earth, what she decides to do with her last breath is both unexpected and emotionally satisfying. Europa Report is probably the only film about an entire crew of astronauts being slowly and painfully killed one by one that manages to pull out a hopeful and transcendent message about humanity in its final, bittersweet note.
Europa Report is currently available to stream on Netflix.