We shine a light sometimes

I actually watched the film Europa Report some months ago, but then they took it down from Amazon Instant Video and it wasn’t in a lot of theatres. Which turned writing a review from “hey you should check out this cool thing” to “ha ha I saw this cool thing which you can’t actually watch”, so.. I didn’t do that. But now it’s up on Netflix (or at least, on U.S. Netflix), so I can talk about it with a relatively clear conscience.

It is, indeed, a cool thing. From the opening frame narrative – a press conference – we learn that a SpaceX-esque firm has launched a crewed exploratory mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa; and that something bad has happened to it. From there we pass to the compelling story of the mission proper, put together as if with footage from on-board cameras. This might give the impression of a Blair Witch-esque shaky-cam fest, but in fact effects like that are used very sparingly, and the overall feel is more like a documentary.

That being said there are a fair number of horror tropes deployed. The sound design, in particular, is often claustrophobic and unsettling. Ultimately (and I don’t want to go into too much more detail, because spoilers) it is not a horror film at all; but if I can bring H.P. Lovecraft back on briefly:

The oldest and strongest emotion is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

There’s a lot of the unknown in traveling to a world in the outer Solar System. Particularly when things don’t go smoothly, which they don’t. In contrast to the real fear, though, Europa Report sounds a very different note with a repeated line:

Compared to the breadth of knowledge yet to be known… what does your life actually matter?

To me at least this looks back past 2001 (which definitely gets its shout-outs), 100 years back to Scott’s expedition to the South Pole. It’s not always remembered that one of the factors distinguishing Scott’s goals from Roald Amundsen’s is that Scott built doing real science into his plans from the word go. When Scott’s tent was found, alongside the dead explorers were 35 pounds of fossils, which they had carried until the end.

People tell me that Europa Report‘s physics and engineering are largely credible, though I don’t have the background to call shenanigans even if they aren’t. They seem believable, and the story doesn’t posit any unlikely new technologies. The astronauts seem like real astronauts: skilled and dedicated without being hyper-competent Spaceman Spiffs who never get irritated with each other or make mistakes. The performances were pretty solid, I thought; apart from Embeth Davidtz in the frame narrative, Sharlto (District 9) Copley was the only name I recognized, but everyone was good, particularly Anamaria Marinca as pilot Rosa Dasque. The spaceship’s crew was reasonably diverse, so kudos for that too.

That Europa is a frontier still lying in wait was emphasized by a recent Planetary Radio episode, which interviewed one of the founders of the Destination: Europa initiative; they advocate for missions to Europa, beginning with an orbiter, the romantically-named Europa Clipper. Since I’m neither a scientist who can send them interesting material to use, nor a U.S. citizen who can write my Congresscritter, there’s not much I can do beyond writing a blog post to say that they rock and you should go check it out, on the off chance that you do fit either or both of those descriptions.

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