Europa Report (2013) Europa Report (2013) ***

     Jupiter has a lot of moons— so many, really, that it feels almost pointless to give the specific figure, since the chances are somebody’ll just spot another one next Thursday. Naturally, most of those satellites were originally asteroids, big hunks of rock and ice that strayed into the giant planet’s gravity well one day, and have been stuck there in orbit ever since. A few of the Jovian moons are properly worlds in their own right, however, and among them are some of the most intriguing bits of real estate in the solar system. Europa is surely the most attractive of all. Its icy surface is virtually free of the impact craters that scar nearby Ganymede and Calisto, bearing instead a complicated tracery of partly healed cracks. The most widely accepted interpretation is that Europa’s crust is continually renewing itself by splitting apart from below and re-freezing. Because spectrometry tells us that Europa’s surface is mainly water ice, it seems likely that the molten layer below is not magma as on Earth, but rather a global underground ocean, kept warm by the titanic energy of Jupiter’s tidal forces. We also know that Europa is well stocked with hydrocarbons and other organic compounds. Indeed, some astronomers speculate that the orangish streaks that seem to concentrate in and around the low points of Europa’s topography may be vast slicks of carboniferous gunk. So: liquid water, organic chemicals, and plenty of energy coursing through the system. Put them together, and Europa becomes one of the best candidates we’ve found yet to harbor extraterrestrial life, surpassed only if at all by Saturn’s moon, Enceladus. Europa Report takes as its premise an expedition in search of that possible life, presented as if in a documentary relying heavily on the astronauts’ video logs of the mission. It’s a bit more complicated than the straight found-footage approach, and creates both built-in explanations for the metagenre’s harder-to-justify tropes and built-in workarounds for its most troublesome limitations.

     The Europa One mission was a veritable catalogue of firsts: first manned voyage into translunar space, first interplanetary venture by a private-sector entity, first attempt to explore an extraterrestrial ocean. Furthermore, the Europa One flight was to be the longest ever undertaken by human astronauts, more than four years for the round trip— and with no prospect of rescue or return during all that time should anything go wrong. Project director Dr. Unger (Elizabeth Pavidtz, from Army of Darkness and Thirteen Ghosts) knew well that few people had ever demanded as much of their fellow man as she was demanding of the Europa One astronauts. And from practically the first talking-head segment in which Unger appears, it’s obvious that she continues to be haunted by that even now, however many years after those six brave explorers came to some as yet unspecified bad end.

     But hang on. Perhaps we should meet the doomed astronauts before leaping ahead to the doom itself. Mission commander Captain William Xu (Daniel Wu, of Warcraft and Night Corridor) and pilot Rosa Dasque (Anamaria Marinca, from The Girl with All the Gifts) would have been right at home during NASA’s Heroic Age, notwithstanding the bit about Dasque being female and Xu being Chinese. They were all strict professionalism and can-do attitude, without a trace of visible ego to interfere with the mission. Chief Engineer Andrei Blok (London Voodoo’s Michael Nyqvist) was the perfect stereotype of the dour Russian intellectual, prickly and difficult to approach on a personal level, but a veritable wizard in his field. Blok’s assistant, James Corrigan (Sharlto Copley, from District 9 and Elysium), had practically the opposite temperament. An easygoing and slightly rowdy jokester, Corrigan would have been the Brooklyn Guy had Europa Report been made 50 years earlier. And science officers Katya Petrovna (Karolina Wydra, of After and Incarnate) and Daniel Luxembourg (Christian Camargo, from The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn) had sort of a friendly rivalry, seemingly rooted in their divergent attitudes toward risk-taking. Although personally timid in contrast to her colleague’s confident and sometimes blustery bravado, Petrovna had the heart of a high-stakes gambler so far as the mission is concerned, while Luxembourg tended toward a more cautious and measured approach.

     It will surprise none of you, I trust, to learn either that the Europa One astronauts did indeed find life beneath the moon’s icy crust, or that one of the species in question was directly responsible for a lot of what went lethally wrong out there in space. What might catch you a little off guard, however, is that the crew’s unseen nemesis is not confirmed to be a living organism until the final scene of the film’s main action. Europa Report actually spends most of its time operating not in the Alien tradition, but in that of Destination Moon. Indeed, the central conceit of the movie is that the fate of the crew was unknown for months, because the first casualty was caused by an equipment malfunction that also left the ship incommunicado with millions of miles still to go before reaching its destination. The visible conflict is therefore between the explorers and the rigors of space travel, with special emphasis on getting their damaged vessel back in full working order. And as the mission grows deadlier, and the Europa One itself more battered, the surviving astronauts become increasingly fixated not on saving their own lives, but on repairing the comlink so that their sacrifices will not have been in vain.

     More than anything, what I enjoyed about Europa Report was simply seeing a modern sci-fi movie remember that space doesn’t need teeth or tentacles to kill you. Granted, the thing prowling beneath the Europan ice has both, but the astronauts are facing more than enough danger just from venturing into so fundamentally hostile an environment in the first place. There’s no need to jump to the conclusion that there’s a man-eating monster on the loose when Europa has at its disposal so many other obvious ways of doing humans in. What’s more, I can honestly say that Europa Report would have been about 85% as satisfying if the Europa One crew’s adversary had turned out to be nothing more than some kind of bioluminescent space slime mold, or even just the effect of an unsuspected interaction between the moon’s crust and the gravity and radiation from Jupiter. Mind you, I’m sure it helps to have already developed a taste for the stodgier sci-fi movies of the early 50’s, but I can equally well imagine this film acting as a gateway drug for those. In any case, Europa Report is another one to keep in mind for those occasions when you want to watch responsible adults being good at their jobs.

     Europa Report is also one to watch for an idea of how much un- and underexploited potential remains in the found footage premise, just so long as filmmakers are willing to sweat the small stuff. It makes perfect sense that every space within the Europa One should be redundantly wired for video cameras, together with strategic points on the outer hull and even the helmets worn by the astronauts during extravehicular excursions. And of course all those cameras would be feeding into the ship’s computer banks constantly, so that once the data was transmitted back to Earth, a hypothetical documentarian would be spoiled for choice in terms of raw footage. It’s obviously an excuse to allow for multiple camera angles and conventional editing for both pace and clarity, but the point is, it’s a good excuse— a clever, sensible, and completely credible excuse. And thanks to it, Europa Report enjoys the distinction of being the only movie of its kind I’ve seen that never gives cause to doubt that a camera would be around to catch a particular moment or view. Meanwhile, because the movie presents itself as a documentary made after the events it depicts, there’s an equally unassailable excuse for it to be edited with an eye toward drama and suspense. After all, documentary filmmakers care about audience engagement, too. Naturally, it remains to be seen how broadly applicable the lessons of Europa Report really are, but I do hope that faux-verité fetishists are watching and taking careful notes.



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