A stellar cast of small screen and foreign breakouts and some spectacular set design can't save the cliché-ridden plot of Europa Report, the latest bare-bones, micro-budgeted attempt at that oh-so realistic spin on astronauts-in-peril subgenre that as of late has failed to achieve complete lift off.
With the promise of life under its icy surface, Jupiter's sixth closest moon, Europa, has been a favorite science fiction destination for many a contemporary author since Arthur C. Clarke decided back in the '80s to shine a spot light on it in 2010: Odyssey Two, his follow up to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Also set in the future, Europa Report seems to look no further than highlights from that novel/movie sequel for inspiration, lifting wholesale many, resulting in a narrative that does little more than connect shopworn plot points against a visual backdrop of what's admittedly a clean, stylish surface of instrument and control panels and displays that make up the inner walls and consoles of the spacecraft. That's the movie's main strength: an at times symmetrical display of technological and corporeal architecture within the confines of a flight deck, a middeck or a lounging area. Not that these tiny spaces aren't populated with interesting faces. Ecuadorian director Sebastian Cordero (Cronicas) should be commended for working outside his comfort zone of violent thrillers set in Latin American slums. He and some of his Latin American colleagues, including production designer Eugenio Caballero (Pan's Labyrinth, Resident Evil: Extinction) and cinematographer Enrique Chediak (127 Hours, 28 Weeks Later), have not only built one of the coolest, most realistic space craft sets ever filmed but also know where to place the camera and who to place it on while surrounded by an extraordinariness of scenery that spills on over from the main stage onto the imposing, frozen environment of Europa.
Current genre go-to guy Sharlto Copley (District 9, The A-Team) leads a small space crew made up of a who's who of recent critically acclaimed international talent, including Michael Nyqvist (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy) as the taciturn Russian engineer; Palme d'Or winner Anamaria Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days) stuck with the Veronica Cartwright role; Karolina Wydra (House M.D., True Blood) as little more than strong-willed eye candy; Christian Camargo (Dexter) as the fishy scientist and Daniel Wu (Protégé, Inseparable) as the ship's passive, reflective captain. Unfortunately, not only does it seem like each character was scribbled down at the local science-fiction writing workshop but it also seems that the actors themselves were typecast as a result of recent career-defining roles. This squarely plants Copley as the wide-eyed, American schmuck in outer space and the South African actor only looks too happy to punch out his card when the time comes.
Ironically, the most interesting casting we only see in glimpses, back on Earth and many years after the trip, as two scientists ruminate in documentary style, talking head form on the mysterious fate of the ship's crew once it reached Europa. Cast against type are Dan Fogler (who's better known for playing slobs in comedies like Take Me Home Tonight and Balls of Fury) as a giddy scientist and Embeth Davidtz (who is most recently known for playing not much more than the wife or the girlfriend in shows like Mad Men and Californication) as the more soulful, philosophical scientist. Their interviews, as well as some of the crew's before they depart, help break-up what ends up being in the last third a Lovecraftian thriller that has unfolded through found footage. That sounds great in retrospect - it sounds awesome, actually! - but unfortunately the boiler plate plot does nothing to fulfill the full potential of that premise.
Up until then we know that the crew is sent to find samples of life under the frozen surface of one of Europa's oceans only to have some unexpected and horrifying encounters, leading to a lost expedition. But before you can say "and then there were none," some gratuitous disasters are thrown in for good measure, lest you think this is just another sloppy slasher set in outer space. Far from it. Points given, in fact, for the attention to detail given to avoid smaller, sexist and politically incorrect plot traps, such as passing the Bechdel Test (after all, it is two female scientists in space), even though a romance does manage to insinuate itself, paying tribute to the age old adage that you can't send a model and a brooding hunk into outer space; and the attempt at an "international space crew" not comprised solely of Americans and Russians, although one may scratch her head over Wu's character as he's supposed to be a Chinese national but has a perfect American accent. Anyway...
There's no denying that a lot of thought, care and passion was put into this gamble of a project by a cast and crew that in a few years and after a few movies will be major players in Hollywood. Until then, though, unless you're a hardcore science fiction fan, you may want to skip this trip.
Europa Report opens theatrically in L.A. this Friday, August 2nd, playing at the Sundance Sunset in West Hollywood and can currently be viewed on Video On Demand.