There are few worlds in our solar system that invoke such intrigue than Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa.
Studies suggest that just below that layer of ice, lakes cycle minerals to-and-from the irradiated surface into the comparative protection of an extensive sub-surface ocean. These facts, plus the possibility that substantial quantities of oxygen are thought to be mixed in with the liquid water, has prompted scientists and science fiction writers alike to imagine not just microbial life, but the possibility of evolved multicellular Europan lifeforms. Imagine terrestrial jellyfish and you wouldn’t be far off some of the serious suggestions of the kinds of life such a moon may be capable of spawning.
Of course, this assumes that life is compulsive; if there are the ingredients for life (organic compounds, liquid water and an energy source) life can thrive anywhere in the universe — an assumption that currently has little scientific foundation as the only lifeforms we know exist are gathered on one planet, Earth. So, in an attempt to find the much sought-after “second genesis,” we keep sending robots to Mars and listen out for intelligent extraterrestrial signals from other worlds, all in the hope of answering the age-old cosmic conundrum: Are we alone?
So, as our breadth of knowledge of Europa grows, the more intrigued we become at the possibility of life as we know it living below that moon’s icy crust. Calls are getting louder to at least send a robotic probe — or even better, a manned expedition — to satisfy this curiosity.
It is at this point where the movie “Europa Report” begins — the launch of the first manned mission to Europa on board the spacecraft Europa One. In a nutshell, the movie is a tour de force of science fiction movie making that not only prides itself on scientific accuracy, but also nails down a terrifically suspenseful storyline without resorting to needless Hollywood CGI that is becoming all too familiar in weak sci-fi movie making. Imagine a mash-up of the atmosphere of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the in-space accuracy of “Apollo 13″ and the intrigue of “The Abyss” and you won’t be too far off.
Using real footage of the United Launch Alliance Atlas V-551 rocket that launched the 2011 NASA Juno mission to Jupiter, NASA Galileo observations of the Jovian system and NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory footage of solar flare events, director Sebastián Cordero carefully introduces in-space CGI only where necessary.
Many of the scenes inside Europa One could easily be scenes from inside the International Space Station (ISS). The attention to detail — from airlock procedures before a spacewalk to the careful monitoring of radiation dosage — becomes a part of the storyline, a refreshing change to the constant necessity of the suspension of disbelief during many blockbuster sci-fi flicks. Fortunately for the six crew members of Europa One, their spacecraft differs from the ISS in that it also has a spinning section that creates artificial gravity, slowing the detrimental impact of zero gravity on the human physiology — something that is nicely explained during the fluid dialog between our multinational crew of explorers.
An added bonus to “Europa Report” is that it is all created from footage via on-board cameras, helmet cams and exterior shots recorded during the spacecraft’s mission. It’s a collection of footage beamed back to Earth after contact has been lost with the mission, documentary style. This ads a degree of realism in that we only see what the crew sees. ‘Talking head’ footage is introduced depicting mission scientists explaining the accurate science behind Europa.
Psychology of Deep Space and Alien Intrigue
This realism is enhanced by the unforced drama and psychology of being on board a long-duration mission into deep space. The feeling of loss and depression when a crew member dies; the agony of not being able to communicate with loved ones back on Earth in real time; the need for constant health evaluations; the boredom of pre-packaged food; the loneliness of having communications severed from Earth — all these factors make the viewer bond with the crew.
The casting is also excellent, as is the script: there’s no pointless drama between the crew members and it doesn’t needlessly degenerate into a monster flick half way through (i.e. “Sunshine”). Also, Cordero is careful to build suspense once the crew make the thrilling descent and landing onto Europa to investigate its mysterious landscape.
Footage from the drill submersible is also sublime. To access the extensive mass of liquid water below the landed capsule, the crew deploy a submersible probe that doubles up as a drill bit. After drilling through over 2,000 meters of ice, the harnessed probe drops into the body of liquid water. The camera pans around the sub-surface ocean and the crew, from within the safety of their landed capsule, listen to the noises of the mysterious marine environment. Marine biologist Katya Petrovna (played by Karolina Wydra) remarks, “We’re so far from home … it’s like looking at Lake Vostok right now,” while the scientists try to decipher the shapes in the ice crust. Is it caused by eroding thermal currents? Or are the shapes formed by microbes? For now, they’re not sure, but constant measurements are taken, depicting the realism of scientists on the cutting edge of extraterrestrial discovery.
…but what are those mysterious lights…? To find out about that, which leads to the movie’s excellent, heart-stopping climax, you’ll have to watch it for yourself.
“Europa Report” is a brilliant, gritty story about the first manned mission to Europa, proving that intelligent and scientifically accurate storytelling is a lot more captivating than many of the mainstream sci-fi movies that often get dredged out of many Hollywood studios.
“Europa Report” will appear in theaters on Friday (Aug. 2) and is also available via iTunes.
Watch the trailer here:
Image: The Europa One capsule descends toward the cracked surface of Jupiter’s frozen moon. Credit: Wayfare Entertainment