“Europa Report” is a lean, ultra-realistic sci-fi thriller that shows you don’t have to spend Tom Cruise or Will Smith money to tell a tight, intimate story. This frill-free “found footage” film may have the limited scope of a made-for-SyFy Channel movie, but the filmmakers put all the money up on the screen.
Something happened to a spacecraft sent to Jupiter’s moon, Europa, to find out if there is life in the water beneath the icy surface. We’re shown interviews with Embeth Davidtz as a sometimes tearful Dr. Unger, the head of the privately financed project that sent six astronauts further than any human has ever been. Isiah Whitlock Jr. and an uncredited Dan Fogler are other Earthbound interview subjects, scientists who rationalize the need for this human trip to learn “if we’re not alone.”
An opening act sets us up — the crew making its first hard, life-or-death decision about whether to go on after someone has died. These are water-marked archival images from the many onboard cameras on Europa One, sort of a version of the craft we’ve seen in realistic space odysseys since “2001” — all girders and modules and solar panels, with a rotating artificial gravity wing. We see five crew members and realize a sixth is missing and learn that contact with Earth has been lost.
The rest of the story is told in flashback as we see the reasons for the mission, the launch, and learn a little about the crew — played by Michael Nyqvist of “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” Sharlto Copley of “District Nine,” Daniel Wu, Karolina Wydra, Christian Camargo and Anamaria Marinca.
Mistakes are made, accidents happen. And strange things glimmer on and beneath the surface of Europa.
A pretty good cast is under-used on a plainly shortened movie that relies too much on technique. We see blurred images, clever fisheye lenses giving us a space helmet’s point of view of an alien world, and a bug-eyed closeup of the astronaut wearing that helmet — and meticulous production values are on display at every turn. “Europa” is closer to “Apollo 13” than “Prometheus.”
The story shifts out of order, from time to time, messing up our sense of continuity as we watch it. It loses track of what engineer Andrei (Nyqvist) is “recovering” from that makes the rest of the crew not trust him, of the dynamics of rising tensions among six people cramped in a small space on a perilous mission.
But director Sebastian Cordero — he did the John Leguizamo journalism thriller “Chronicles” — serves up chilling and all-too-real ways to die in space and maintains tension even if suspense is in short supply in a tale told in flashback.
This is what sci-fi on a budget is supposed to look like. And if it’s not as chilling as the Sam Rockwell-starring “Moon,” at least this Brooklyn-shot odyssey betters most movies in its weight class, most notably “Apollo 18” and its horror ilk.
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Embeth Davidtz, Michael Nyqvist, Daniel Wu
Directed by Sebastian Cordero, written by Philipp Gelatt. A Magnolia release
Running time: 1:30
MPAA rating: PG-13, for sci-fi action and peril