“To Explore a Strange New World…”

“Europa Report”
Karolina Wydra, Michael Nyqvist, Sharlto Copley, Embeth Davidtz
Directed by Sabastian Cordero

When it comes to trailblazing sci-fi movies that deserve to make the short-but-sweet list of groundbreaking masterpieces, there are only a few essential classics to choose from: “Metropolis,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “The War of the Worlds,” “Forbidden Planet,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Planet of the Apes,” “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Alien,” “Blade Runner” and “The Matrix.”

But with the arrival of the brilliant, breathtaking and awe-inspiring “Europa Report,” that list just got a little longer and a whole lot sweeter. Though inspired by the documentary-style “found footage” approach that defined micro-budgeted films like “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity,” Ecuadorian filmmaker Sebastian Cordero launches that technique into the stratosphere, resulting in a spellbinding masterpiece that’s just as ingenious, provocative and compelling as it is riveting, intense and mesmerizing.

On November 16, 2011, NASA scientists discovered the best evidence yet that lakes of water may indeed lie below the icy surface of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Science dictates that where there’s water, there’s the capacity for life. But rather than send an unmanned probe to investigate what could be the single most important discovery in human history – the existence of life elsewhere in our solar system – a privately funded space exploration company sends a crew of six of the world’s greatest astronauts on a mission across the heavens to confirm the enticing new data.

But when a technical failure leads to a loss of communications, the astronauts are cut off and must fend for themselves in their brave efforts to answer the ultimate question: Are we alone in the universe? But as the mission progresses, leading to dangers never before encountered, maybe they should be asking themselves a more immediate question: Are we better off not knowing?

In what is easily the most plausible depiction yet of deep space travel on film, “Europa Report” effectively matches (and even tops) “2001” to capture the psychological effects of prolonged isolation that come with being confined to a small spacecraft for months on end. The film also shows that no matter how idealistic or heroic the astronauts may be, space travel is a dangerous business – one where a million different things can go wrong at any given second.

When that one crucial thing does go wrong, cutting off Europa One from Ground Control, the scientists on Earth are left to re-create the events of the mission from the footage they eventually receive. That footage is pieced together from each of the cameras located throughout the spacecraft, as well as from cameras on the astronaut’s spacesuits and from the inside of their helmets.

Cordero and screenwriter Philip Gelatt use this point of view to construct a suspenseful, challenging and engaging narrative that flows in a non-linear structure – a structure that allows “Europa Report” to depict a wide-ranging emotional experience that captures the beauty, the wonder, the fear, the intelligence, the heart, the heroism and the sacrifice that comes with boldly going where no man has gone before. All the while, Cordero tightens the screws on the intensity to craft a sublime horror thriller of sorts that’s as grounded in reality as a 90-minute movie like this could possibly be.

But the top notch production values would have been for nothing without the talented ensemble cast – each of whom conveys a different aspect of humanity. Karolina Wydra (“Crazy, Stupid, Love”) plays the scientist who’s profound sense of awe distracts her from the dangers around her; Michael Nyqvist (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) is the experienced “space veteran” who’s also the most emotionally distant of the bunch; and Sharlto Copley (“District 9”) plays the engineer who’s the most consumed with missing his family. Back on Earth, Embeth Davidtz and Dan Fogler play the scientists who recount the mission with a mixture of bittersweet pride and profound regret.

Try to imagine a film that balances the plausible technical prowess of “2001,” the ideas explored in its underrated sequel “2010,” the idealistic drive of “Star Trek” and the sheer intensity of “Alien,” and you get an idea of what “Europa Report” manages to accomplish. An instant classic like this may only come once in a blue moon, but no matter how long it takes for the next essential sci-fi masterpiece to grace the big screen, one thing’s for sure: “Europa Report” is a welcome addition to the list.

-Scott Mantz