‘Europa Report’

Astronaut walks outside landing module on Jupiter's moon“Europa Report” is first-class science fiction.

All too often the sci-fi label gets attached to comic book movies and the like where there is little science, only outlandish fiction about super beings. “Europa Report” gets the science right — or it sure looks like the movie does from this layman’s point of view.

For this story about a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa to investigate the possible existence of life underneath its icecaps, the filmmakers collaborated closely with NASA, JPL, SpaceX and other leaders in the scientific community to keep the tense drama firmly rooted in what’s possible, rather than the outer reaches of the imagination.

What a difference this makes!

Every moment where the crew’s lives hang in the balance feels unbelievably real since their mission and its tragic events all transpire in an utterly realistic environment. You can almost smell the sweat.

“Europa Report” marks an audacious English language debut by Uruguayan director Sebastián Cordero (“Crónicas”), who once again works with two longtime collaborators, Academy Award-winning production designer Eugenio Caballero (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “The Impossible”) and cinematographer Enrique Chediak (“127 Hours”).

Sharlto Copley close up in astronaut's helmetPhilip Gelatt’s intricate screenplay adds to the verisimilitude.

More and more it’s looking like space exploration may get privatized as the U.S. government grows increasingly reluctant to spend tax dollars. So in this film, when unmanned probes suggest a hidden ocean may lurk beneath Europa’s icy surface, a privately funded Europa Ventures sends six of the best astronauts from around the world to check it out.

The film takes the form of a “found footage” movie. Several months into the mission, after a near-catastrophic technical failure, all communications between the space ship and earth are lost. Then, months later, a connection is re-established.

The movie fills in the time gap to explore what happened to the crew and whether anyone survived.

All footage comes from cameras mounted everywhere within the cramped living quarters and work stations, which were originally intended to keep the lines of communications open 24/7.

Episodes outside the space craft are shot by exterior cameras or cameras within the astronauts suits, often focusing directly on intense faces.

Europa Report's crew gazes at cam monitorsYou can well believe it took four editors to wrestle this thing into shape as the multiplicity of the angles and the rhythms of the cuts increase the tension with each passing minute. So bravo to Aaron Yanes, Alexander Kopit, Craig McCay and Livio Sanchez!

Some viewers may carp about the story’s structure: It’s not straight forward. First you see the last shots from aboard the the space craft moments before the break in communication. Then comes the explanation of the re-established link.

After this, however, the film goes back and forth between incidents that happened before and after the break. It’s not hard to follow but it is manipulative; it is designed for dramatic reveals rather than a this-leads-to-that narrative.

There are also interview segments shot afterward back on earth like you might see in a cable science documentary. So there is a sense of a dramatic form being imposed on found footage, which is not the usual way a “found footage” film goes.

The actors are all superb as the early sections allow them to develop full-blown characters whose personalities come into play once the many crises hit.

View of planet Jupiter from moon EuropaAnamaria Marinca (you might recall her as the young protagonist in “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”) stands out as a commander who makes decisions slowly and strives for consensus. Michael Lyqvist has become withdrawn following the first tragic episode while Karolina Wydra’s marine biologist still cannot contain her near giddy enthusiasm for the journey.

Sharlto Copley, whose last sci-fi flick was the great “District 9,” is called upon to make a tremendous sacrifice in mid-mission. Christian Camargo and Daniel Wu round out the cast. Dan Folger and Embeth Davidtz lead the scientists back on Earth.

What may throw off younger viewers and critics, who have been schooled by Hollywood sic-fi epics, is that the film’s characters do not come with ready-made, easily identifiable problems or flaws that play out during the mission.

Rather these are all level-headed engineers and scientists whose personal lives remain off camera as they deal with problems of the mission. This lack of “character arcs,” the building blocks of paint-by-the-numbers studio screenplays, makes “Europa Report” all the more refreshing.

Chediak’s cinematography is crisp, focused and breathtaking. Camera angles always make sense and help create the claustrophobia a viewer gradually start to feel. Caballero’s design for the space craft looks plausibly utilitarian.

More than anything, Cordero‘s “Europa Report” restores the wonder to space. Hollywood and other offenders have so cluttered science fiction with alternative-reality debris that the awesomeness of actual space exploration has vanished.

In this film, when an astronaut gazes out a portal at the infinity of space, you sense the amazement that fills his heart.

Along with wonder though comes terror. All the great space movies from “2001” to “Alien” understood that it’s more than a little scary going “out there.” It’s the unknown.

For that matter, it’s also the known — those dangers that no mission can completely prepare for when human being venture so far into deep space.

Venue: LA Film Festival
Opens: August 2, 2013 (Magnet Releasing); VOD June 27
Production companies: Wayfare Entertainment, Sil Metropole
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Michael Lyqvist, Christian Camargo, Embeth Davidtz, Dan Folger, Anamaria Marinca, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Karolina Wydra, Daniel Wu
Director: Sebastián Cordero
Screenwriter: Philip Gelatt
Producer: Ben Browning
Executive producers: Michael Maher, Jeremy Kipp Walker
Director of photography: Enrique Chediak
Production designer: Engenio Caballero
Music: Bear McCreary
Visual effects supervisor: John Bair
Costume designer: Anna Terrazas
Editor: Aaron Yanes, Alexander Kopit, Craig McCay, Livio Sanchez
PG-13 rating, 90 minutes