Most science-fiction thrillers favor fiction over science, but the faux-documentary “Europa Report” does its best to stay true to the sci in sci-fi. First conceptualized in 2009, the film takes its inspiration from NASA research suggesting that underneath the vast ice sheaths of Jupiter’s moon Europa lies oceanic water, a key element to supporting life. The Galileo probe, which orbited Jupiter and its many moons from December 1995 until September 2003, collected pictures and data. Then in 2011, scientists hit a proverbial jackpot: They found among the collected data evidence of a body of liquid water, equal in volume to the North American Great Lakes, underneath a region of jumbled ice blocks known as Conamara Chaos on Europa, the sixth-largest moon in the solar system.
Despite such exciting discoveries, critical budget cuts severely threatened NASA’s space program. At the same time, private space travel, led by the commercial venture Virgin Galactic and the ambitious research company SpaceX, was coming on the scene. The merger of limitless industry resources with the possibility of uncovering alien life seems like a perfect Hollywood pitch. Such is the scenario explored in the exceptional “Europa Report.”
“Europa Report” explores the fundamental question driving space discovery: Are we alone? With private funds and advanced technology at its disposal, the fictitious Europa Ventures space exploration company enlists seven brilliant voyagers for the groundbreaking Europa mission, the first human venture beyond Earth’s orbit since 1972.
“Europa Report” is easily the most realistic depiction of travel and life in space since 2009’s “Moon” and calls to mind the 1960s standard-bearer “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Committed to the accuracy of its sets, shuttle, space imagery, and scientific data, the folks behind “Europa Report” relied heavily on consultation with NASA and the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as well as with SpaceX and other scientific leaders, to achieve verisimilitude regarding everything from the planning and execution of the mission to what the surface of Europa would look like.
Indeed, the first act of “Europa Report” parlays the mundane lull of life in space—exercise to stave off atrophy, the recycling of urine for distilled water, and ship engineers Andrei Blok (Nyqvist) and James Corrigan (Copley) bickering in close quarters—overshadowed by the hints of future tragedy.
Approximately six months into its journey, the Europa mission loses communication with ground control as a result of an unexpected solar storm. From here, the film cleverly seesaws between the present and chronological flashbacks, as the crew bravely decides to press on with its journey. The film’s tempo subtly, but effectively, picks up with a series of tragic events that affect the crew. When the ship is stranded on Europa’s surface because of heat beneath the ice surface, the crew, led by pilot Rosa Dasque (Marinca), takes drastic steps to ensure that the precious data it collected is not for naught.
With the help of NASA and SpaceX, set designer Eugenio Caballero built the spaceship set to include living quarters, a control area, and zero-gravity wirework. After production was complete, the visual effects team replicated the Europa exterior environment with data and imagery collected during the Galileo mission. Perhaps as a result, some of the film’s strongest sequences occur when Dr. Katya Petrovna (Wydra) tenuously ventures on the icy surface to collect data and explore the surroundings, leading to the heart-stopping conclusion that both seals the team’s ultimate fate and reaffirms the value of their mission.
“This project felt like a unique opportunity to do something plausible but forward thinking, somewhere between NASA and ‘Star Trek,’ ” says Ben Browning, whose company, Wayfare Entertainment, developed the film. “Europa Report” is constructed to feel like a documentary or voyeuristic Web stream of a real (and altogether possible) scientific experiment.
The film explores several important questions in our inevitable quest to search the galaxy for extraterrestrial life: Even if we find life-forms in the outer galaxy, do we really want to know what’s out there? Or perturb it? In the case of “Europa Report,” a terrifying conclusion conjures up as many fears as it answers exciting possibilities. The film also poses the question: Is the commercialization of space exploration a good idea? In the wake of celebrities buying shuttle rides into Earth’s orbit and space ventures funded by billionaires, who will maintain regulatory oversight and scientific integrity?
Of course, it’s uncertain whether there will ever be a real-life mission to Europa, or even beyond, let alone whether there will ever be a groundbreaking discovery of extraterrestrial life. Even so, “Europa Report” unveils a grand science experiment before our eyes and, perhaps, a glimpse into the future.