Europa Report

Between “Star Trek Into Darkness,” “Oblivion,” “After Earth,” “Pacific Rim,” and “Elysium,” this summer has had no shortage of big-budget science-fiction spectacles. And while their entertainment value and profitability have varied, one thing they’ve all had in common is that they’ve been a great deal more fiction than science, their plots often larded with meaningless techno-babble and logic-defying mechanical and plot devices. It’s fun and all, but come on.

A well-grounded counterpoint to the noisy frivolity is “Europa Report,” an astonishingly realistic depiction of a space voyage imperiled not by supervillains or giant monsters or an alias-adapting Khan, but by things that real astronauts would (or plausibly could) encounter. Outer space, lest we forget, is pretty dangerous on its own, without devising fictional terrors.

Developed with a painstaking approach to accuracy and some advisory assistance from NASA, this low-boiling thriller is about a six-person crew headed for Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter that scientists have reason to believe may have life on it. Rather, I should say it’s about a crew that already headed for Europa: the film is presented as an after-the-fact “documentary” about what went wrong on the way there.

Most of the film takes the form of surveillance footage from inside the spaceship. Fortunately for us (especially those of us who are weary of cheap-looking “found footage” monstrosities), the people who funded the mission sprang for high-definition cameras and state-of-the-art microphones. The picture and sound are crystal-clear, not grainy and muddy — it feels like we’re there on the ship. The gimmick isn’t an annoyance, then, but an effective device for conveying the isolation of space travel.

To add variety and suspense to what would otherwise be a rather simple narrative trajectory — ship blasts off; travels; crew has problems — director Sebastian Cordero and screenwriter Philip Gelatt unfold the story in a non-linear fashion. We have the trek’s corporate financier, Dr. Unger (Embeth Davidtz), telling viewers at the very beginning that mission control lost communication with the ship at some point in its journey. We see some of the events that took place on the ship just before and after this disruption, including the crew’s unanimous decision to continue with the mission anyway. But we also follow the story many months later, when the crew finally reaches Europa and finds new challenges. There’s also footage of the pilot, Rosa Dasque (Anamaria Marinca), reflecting on the mission sometime later.

Keeping it straight which events are happening in what order requires some concentration, but “Europa Report” is the sort of un-flashy, nuts-and-bolts sci-fi story that encourages close attention. The crew is composed of characters who could pass for real astronauts: a no-nonsense captain (Daniel Wu), a family man (Sharlto Copley) who misses his wife and son, a grizzled “space veteran” (Michael Nyqvist) who’s been out before but never this far, and two science officers (Christian Camargo, Karolina Wydra). All of the characters are refreshingly un-cliched, and their decisions are pragmatic and scientific, not reckless.

By focusing on the “ordinary” dangers of space travel instead of more fantastical ones, the film manages to wring suspense out of things like leaving the ship to repair something on the outside — an activity that the heroes in blockbuster sci-fi films perform like they’re taking a walk to the bus stop but that in reality is a delicate, perilous endeavor. But this reality-based attitude also means we’re deprived of the sort of grand, climactic pay-off that typifies the more melodramatic sci-fi adventures. The film is resonant and largely satisfying, but in a smaller, more cerebral way than many of its genre.

B (1 hr., 30 min.; PG-13, a little mild profanity, some mild violence and sci-fi intensity.)

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