There are scenes of unutterable beauty in Europa Report, a low-budget space exploration sci-fi suspenser from Ecuadorian director Sebastián Cordero (Crónicas, Rage).
A balletic space-walk sequence has two astronauts struggle against time to repair their ship. One is injured and the other scrambles to save him.
Shot in real time and shot through with such tension it's nearly unbearable to watch, the scene suddenly shifts in mood, ending with a deeply tragic yet equally graceful, elegant note.
Europa Report is not run-of-the-mill sci-fi: There's little action of the Bruce Willis Die Hard sort, no crazy Alien-esque creatures or murderous computers.
A quiet, modest chamber piece more like Moon than Star Wars, it's about a crew of six astronauts - four men and two women - undertaking the first manned space mission in history to go beyond the moon.
Flying a handsome space ship designed in consultation with NASA experts, the crew is headed to the Jupiter moon Europa in search of life. The moon has plentiful water, and some scientists have theorized it may have spawned life - bacteria, one-cell organisms, even algae. In a refreshing departure from the genre, Europa Report isn't based on junk science or glutted with techno-science babble dialogue.
Six months into the 22-month flight, a sun flare zaps the ship's communications array, making contact with Earth impossible. Lost, alone, and increasingly desperate, the crew overcomes insane odds in a bid to complete its mission.
Europa Report is a film about people, about their humanity - not hardware. It succeeds in great part because it's blessed with a gifted ensemble cast that includes Christian Camargo, Daniel Wu, Michael Nyqvist, and Anamaria Marinca.
Cordero makes his small budget work by staging most of the film inside the ship, shooting the action with dozens of fixed surveillance cameras.
Yep, Europa Report is yet another in the rapidly growing found-footage subgenre. It's a risky, bold gambit, and it doesn't always work: The first half-hour feels static, aimless.
Cordero also tries to ramp up the excitement - and perhaps disguise a somewhat anorexic script - by chopping up the time flow and showing major events out of sequence.
As the film opens, we're already 19 months into the mission. Then we're transported back to launch day, jerked suddenly to the six-month mark, and so on.
Yet despite its many flaws, Europa Report is a refreshing take on an old story. It may be static in parts, but it also features some of the most evocative cinematic poetry since Stanley Kubrick redefined the genre 45 years ago with 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Europa Report *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Sebastián Cordero. With Christian Camargo, Embeth Davidtz, Michael Nyqvist, Anamaria Marinca, Karolina Wydra. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (some violence, adult subjects, sci-fi creature scares)
Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse
Contact Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org.