From “The Blair Witch Project” to the “Paranormal Activity” franchise, the found-footage theme has been both wildly successful and widely replicated in horror films. Director Sebastian Cordero puts a smart spin on the device, applying it to science fiction with “Europa Report,” a mostly successful thriller about six astronauts whose mission to deep space goes haywire.
Europa is the name of the private company that funded the mission and the shuttle that takes the six astronauts into space, but it’s also the name of the group’s destination: Europa is one of Jupiter’s moons. Scientists believe there may be water under Europa’s icy exterior — and where there’s water, there could also be life.
The film mimics a documentary as Samantha Unger (Embeth Davidtz), the scientist who helmed the mission from Earth, recounts the events leading up to the moment when Houston lost contact with the crew. Dabbing tears from her eyes, it’s clear that things went awry, although the presence of another interview subject — forlorn Europa mission astronaut Rosa (Anamaria Marinca) — seems to indicate that some may have survived.
Did the rest of the crew make it to Europa? The answer can be found in the declassified video from the shuttle, complete with stuttering audio and staticky visuals. At first, the footage from the many cameras inside the spacecraft reveals a light mood and plenty of excitement. One of the engineers, the congenial James (Sharlto Copley), likes to record video of the mission for his son, and the crew jokes about the food and the limited clothing options. But before long, a technical malfunction caused by a solar flare leads to the death of a crew member, not to mention a loss of communication with Earth.
For the most part, the structure of “Europa Report” works, blending footage from inside the shuttle, stunning images of outer space, faux archival news reports and first-person interviews. At first, the film is so engrossing and the images so arresting that audience members might have to be reminded this isn’t an Imax documentary at the Air and Space Museum. That’s a testament to excellent special effects, including stellar re- creations of zero gravity.
But the film begins hopping around in time, which feels unnecessary. The back-and-forth isn’t confusing, thanks to a helpful clock between scenes, but it does ease the tension, which seems the opposite of what the film is trying to do. Just when the movie’s grip begins to tighten, a change of scene and pace loosen the hold. Long stretches of “Europa Report” feel bizarrely listless considering the subject matter. It doesn’t help that a familiar formula begins to emerge (comparisons would give too much away), so it becomes fairly clear where the story is headed.
Even so, there are genuinely chilling moments in “Europa Report,” thanks in no small part to a talented cast that will likely look familiar to viewers, even if the actors’ names aren’t instantly recognizable. In addition to the tremendous Marinca and Copley, who starred in “District 9,” the film features Michael Nyqvist (from the Swedish “Millennium Trilogy” film adaptations) and Christian Camargo (one of the most memorable villains from “Dexter”).
The group’s understated deliveries and the film’s impressive effects make much of “Europa Report” feel like real life. And isn’t that the biggest feat a found-footage film aspires to?
PG-13. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
Contains sci-fi action. 90 minutes.