© 2019, by M. Keith Booker
The U.S.-produced Europa Report was the first English-language film from Ecuadorian director Sebastián Cordero. It is a relatively low-budget film with modest special effects. It also, by the standards of most recent science fiction film, contains relatively little in the way of action or conflict. It is, however, a thoughtful film that addresses, in a simple and elegant way, many of the key issues that drive science fiction, including scientific research, the exploration of outer space, and the search for alien life. In addition, Europa Report is constructed as a sort of found footage film, consisting mostly of video feed sent back to earth during the course of a voyage of exploration of Europa, the smallest of the four Galilean moons orbiting the planet Jupiter, driven by the scientific expectation that the frozen surface of Europa conceals a liquid ocean underneath, an ocean that might well contain life. As such, one of its most important topics concerns technologies of video representation, a topic that is central to science fiction film as a form.
Europa Report is essentially a mockumentary that details, after the fact, the outcome of the mission to Europa. It begins with an on-screen image containing logos of the Europa One project and a file label bearing the designation EUROPAVENTURES.DMG, which is apparently the file containing the edited video footage from the Europa One mission that we are about to see. (DMG is an Apple Mac file type, suggesting that this project employs Apple computers.) On-screen text then appears announcing that “THE EUROPA ONE MISSION WAS THE FIRST ATTEMPT TO SEND MEN AND WOMEN INTO DEEP SPACE.” This announcement is then immediately followed by a cut to sequences from the video feed from the Europa One craft, followed by the addition of a personal touch as we see footage of one of the crew members, junior engineer James Corrigan (Sharlto Copley), apparently conversing with his young son on back on earth. Then, a cut back to on-screen text informs us that the entire world watched this mission in fascination for over six months, with video feeds apparently running around the clock. Then, suddenly, the live feed to earth is cut off, though the cameras aboard the spaceship continue recording the day-to-day activities of the six-person crew.
The time frame of what we are seeing gradually becomes clear as we next see footage of Dr. Samantha Unger (Embeth Davidtz), the Lead Mission Planner for Europa Ventures, the private company that has mounted the Europa One mission. Dr. Unger is tearfully explaining (in some unidentified forum, though perhaps she is just being interviewed for the “documentary” we are watching) what has taken place with the mission. The fact that she is in tears suggests that a tragedy has occurred, though we will not know the exact nature of the tragedy until the very end of the film. On-screen footage, though, assures us that we are about to get the entire story, gleaned from thousands of hours of footage from the mission, edited into a digestible story, punctuated by talking-head commentary from Unger and others.
The first footage that we see after this assurance is a shot of the five surviving crew members inside their ship discussing the recent death of the sixth crew member. A look at the group in the discussion reveals that Corrigan is the deceased crewman. To this point, Corrigan is probably the crew member whom we have come to know on the most personal basis due to his communications with his wife and son; he is also the joker of the crew, even if his jokes are not always terribly funny. Thus, his early death is especially poignant. It will be a while, though, until it becomes clear that Corrigan was killed while trying to repair the damage to their communications array, caused by a solar storm, that was the cause of the cut in the live feed to earth. That repair, unfortunately, was not successful, so that the mission goes on in darkness (with Europa still more than a year away), earth having no idea what is going on with the craft so far away. This situation adds a certain element of suspense to the mission: we still don’t know if Corrigan will be the only crew member to die, even though there is a vague sense that an even larger tragedy might be in the offing, while the people back on earth have no idea at the time that the mission is going on. In addition, the decision to carry out the mission without communication with earth also highlights the dedication of the crew to completing their mission, even though Jupiter is still sixteen months away.
We will gradually meet the entire crew, which is the kind of diverse, multinational group (played by a diverse multinational cast) that has often been seen in science fiction film, following in the footsteps of the famously multicultural crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise in the original Star Trek series. Corrigan (though played by a South African actor) appears to be an American, while Dr. Unger herself appears to be British (though she is also played by a South African actor, albeit one born in the U.S.). The captain of the mission, William Xu (Daniel Wu), appears to be Chinese, though he speaks perfect American English (which seems to be the official language of the mission). Indeed, Wu is actually an American, though his career in film has been primarily within the Hong Kong film industry. The national background of the pilot of the ship, Rosa Dasque (played by Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca), is unclear: her name is vaguely French, but she sounds a bit South African when speaking English. The mission’s chief science officer, Daniel Luxembourg, is played by Christian Camargo, an American actor with some Mexican-American heritage. Marine biologist and oceanographer Katya Petrovna (played by Polish-American actress Karolina Wydra) is vaguely Slavic, possibly Russian, though “Petrovna” is not a legitimate Russian surname. Finally, chief engineer Andrei Blok also appears to be Russian (he and Petrovna sometimes speak Russian with each other), though he is played by Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist. So, of the six-person crew, four are men and two are women; one is possibly from Western Europe, and one is possibly from Asia; two are apparently from the U.S., and two from Eastern Europe. Africa and the Middle East are notable unrepresented (unless Dasque is South African), but it is difficult to represent every race and culture with a six-person crew. Moreover, the film seems to go out of its way not to specify the national origins or affiliations of the crew members, as if to emphasize the view that nationality is unimportant. The point is that this is an international effort, not the effort of any one government; indeed, it is the effort of a private company, not a government at all. But it is a corporation that seems genuinely devoted to the pursuit of knowledge and not merely to the pursuit of profit. In short, the basic character of the Europa One project seems to be utopian.
The trip to Europa is clearly presented in the film as a voyage of discovery, a mission motivated by the fundamental desire to know whether there is life elsewhere in our solar system. And the crew members who take part in the mission all seem devoted to this goal; there is no villain aboard who seeks to sabotage their mission, no nefarious figure who hopes to weaponize their discoveries in order to benefit a rogue government or a predatory corporation. In addition, there is very little tension or disagreement among the crew. There is no rivalry between military crew members and scientist crew members, because all of the crew members are scientists or engineers. For most of the runtime, there are no encounters with sinister aliens and no conspiracies or hidden agendas. Indeed, most of the modest 85-minute runtime of the film is spent simply showing the various crew members doing their jobs. And, while there are occasional crises, most of the work that they do is fairly routine. They are not having adventures, they are working—an activity that is particularly underrepresented in American film.
The ship in which they travel (and in which most of the film’s scenes are set) makes an important contribution to this effect. It has neither the gleaming spaciousness of the ships in Star Trek or 2001 nor the excessively industrial look of the Nostromo in Alien. Instead, it is a practical working craft, slightly cramped and filled with scientific instruments and equipment. It looks very authentic and the interior is somewhat reminiscent of the interior of the International Space Station. Many critics praised the film’s set design and cinematography for creating this realistic look, especially given the film’s limited budget, and they certainly do contribute to the film’s documentary sense of authenticity.
While the film consistently refuses to romanticize the look of the ship or the efforts of its central characters, it does present their motivations as selfless and their conduct as ultimately heroic, if in an understated way. All of the crew members ultimately die, but all seem to feel that their deaths are incurred in the service of something larger than themselves. And this larger something is not some sort of theoretical supernatural power; rather, it is in the interest of concrete scientific knowledge of the world in which we live, knowledge that they hope will help human beings to have a better fundamental understanding of that world and their place within it. Indeed, if the film romanticizes anything, it is science itself. As Corrigan puts it early in the film, the mission hopes to inspire those who come after it to keep exploring and to keep seeking answers to the big questions: “Who are we? Why are we here? Where did we come from? And … are we alone?” And, as Petrovna suggests in another recorded statement, “If life exists on Europa, it will be the single most profound discovery in human history.” Such statements, delivered early in the film, add a certain weight to its mission, making clear that the stakes are tremendously high, even though there is no evidence that any military or economic gain is to be had from the discovery. This is science in its purest form, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. And it is knowledge of the most fundamental kind.
Corrigan’s and Petrovna’s statements are central to the video footage of the “Europa Report,” of which Europa Report is composed. Indeed, the composition of the film poses some of its most important science fictional statements. J. P. Telotte, in his discussion of the film Serenity (2005), notes how the “mediatization” of reality—the replacement of reality by a never-ending stream of images—is a key topic of science fiction film in general. According to Telotte, the various instances in which technologies for the making and transmission of images become crucial to Serenity participate in a process through which
“Serenity manages to sound a caution, not only about how our technology might be employed to ‘meddle with’ our very being—manipulating our thoughts, conditioning our behavior … but also about how our technologically driven media, both film and television, can conspire in that meddling by channeling our experience though the ‘vision machine’ that they constitute” (137).
At first glance there is no media manipulation in Europa Report, in which the “documentary” film we are watching shares with science a simply project of finding the truth and making that truth generally known. At the same time, it is also the case that literally years of video footage have been edited down to roughly eighty carefully-chosen minutes, punctuated by statements from official representatives of the private company that carried out the doomed mission. In one sense, then, it is little wonder that the scientific mission to Europa comes off so positively in the film, because the story is being told only by those who were involved in sponsoring the mission. And, while there are no indications within the film that Europa Ventures has done anything wrong, it is also the case that we have no information about the mission that has not been provided—and heavily edited—by the company itself.
That virtually no one seems to have questioned possible biases within the Europa Ventures account of its own mission suggests just how gullible modern audiences can sometimes be, despite how sophisticated, and even cynical, they might think they are. In reality, of course, the supposed material of the two-year mission has been edited in order to make an entertaining science fiction film. There is no evidence that the discovery of life on Europa has been somehow faked (though it literally has, given that this is a fictional film presented as a documentary), but it is certainly possible to imagine that Europa Ventures might wish to present a particular version of events, perhaps to avoid lawsuits from the families of the crew, who might be considered about whether or not negligence on the part of the company might have led to the deaths of their loved ones. In any case, within the world of the film, the events depicted within it are presented as true, mediated by their conversion to a documentary film. If nothing else, this process provides a reminder of the way in which so many of the things we think we know about the world are heavily mediated—often by those who have a powerful vested interest in presenting a particular version of the story.
Whatever the implications, it is certainly the case that many elements of Europa Report seem designed to remind viewers that they are watching a science fiction film, however much it is presented as a true account of a real mission. As Christy Lemire notes, Europa Report contains an overt allusion to 2001: A Space Odyssey (when a snippet of Richard Strauss’s “The Blue Danube” plays in the spaceship, drawing knowing smiles from the crew) and is often reminiscent of predecessors such as Duncan Jones’s Moon (2009). It thus acknowledges its place in the tradition of science fiction film, though it is virtually unique in its consistent dedication to portraying the day-to-day work of scientists who are genuinely devoted to their jobs. Lemire also nicely describes the overall texture of the film:
Although it’s edited in non-chronological order, Europa Report still reflects the optimism of the mission’s beginning, the no-nonsense way the astronauts react to their loss of communication, and eventually the deteriorating situation that traps them. The perils that emerge create a great deal of tension, but despite the horror film flavor, this is not a graphically violent film. When characters die, it’s never gory. The peaceful calm of letting go feels poignant rather than frightening.
Most other critics also reacted positively to the film, and several others noted its special qualities. For example, Justin Chang, writing in Variety, suggests that
What overtakes these explorers before and after they land on Europa is fairly simple, even banal, which is partly why it seems so convincing; almost without fail, the crew’s setbacks are rooted in technical malfunctions and human miscalculations, their every step recorded by the omnipresent cameras and the ship’s sophisticated network of display screens. Without contriving any sort of overt threat, the film conveys the terror of deep space as a still, silent void, indifferent to human suffering or survival, and Cordero’s direction maintains an eerie calm even as the astronauts slowly begin to grasp the likely outcome of their mission; they may take risks and make sacrifices on each other’s behalf, but always in cool, levelheaded fashion.
There are moments of tension and excitement, though, as when the mission finally reaches Europa and the crew descends to the surface in a small landing craft, only to be hit by a thermal vent that throws them off course and forces them to crash land outside their target landing zone. Though their new position is less than ideal, they still doggedly go on with their mission of discovery, starting immediately by drilling through the ice in an effort to get to the water below. After something apparently destroys the probe they send down into the water, Petrovna even goes out on the dangerous surface to investigate a strange luminescence that has been spotted outside their craft and to take some samples of the surface ice. In so doing, she discovers a living single-celled organism—one of the greatest discoveries in the history of science. Unfortunately, she also becomes the second crew member to die, as she falls through cracking ice into the water below, though we are unable to see exactly how she dies.
The remaining crew members decide to take off soon afterward, so that they can get all the data they have collected back to earth. Unfortunately, they experience engine failures and again crash to the surface—this time, ironically, in the target area where they had originally expected to land. Xu is killed in this crash, which leaves the ship badly damaged. Moreover, they land on very thin ice, which eventually begins to crack, lodging them in the ice. Nevertheless, they still struggle to repair the ship. Blok and Luxembourg go outside the ship and are killed there as they try to make repairs, though Blok survives long enough to repair the communications array, using (with the approval of Dasque) parts taken from the life support system. In short, they have decided to sacrifice their already slim chance of returning home in order to enable the transmission of their crucial data back to earth.
While Blok and Luxembourg are outside, Dasque records a final video diary entry, portions of which have been displayed throughout much of the film, though it was not clear until now exactly when or under what circumstances those portions were recorded. One of these portions is repeated twice in the film, because it contains a key question that lies at the very center of the film’s project. “Compared to the breadth of knowledge yet to be known,” Dasque muses solemnly, “what does your life actually matter?” As the film ends, Dasque herself will be the last to die; she blows the hatch on the landing craft as it sinks into the water, while a huge, luminescent, octopus-like creature attacks from below, as the screen goes to blank darkness. But all of the mission’s data and video have been sent back to earth, all the way up to that final, fleeting shot of the “octopus” attack. The mission, therefore, has been a success and its ultimate goals have all been achieved. The existence of life forms on Europa—even fairly advanced life forms, rather than the single-celled organisms they had expected might be the only life there—has been confirmed. Humanity is now faced with new knowledge that will force us to reconsider everything we thought we knew about our place in the universe.
Europa Report delivers a refreshingly positive vision of science at work, while seeking to remind us that the sense of wonder that informs so much of the best science fiction is something that was derived from science itself. And this message could not be more timely or more important. We live in a time when science itself is increasingly coming under attack from powerful forces that are themselves at risk because the findings of science are beginning unmistakably to suggest that capitalism in its current form is simply unsustainable (because it is literally destroying our planet). Meanwhile, science fiction film, as a whole, might take its inspiration from science, but it has all too often sounded warnings against the dangers of unrestrained scientific inquiry, because science going wrong is easier to turn into compelling plots than science working as it should. In addition, science fiction film has paid too little attention to the actual work done by scientists (which can involve tedious and painstaking labor) and to the way in which science has transformed human life in the past four centuries, giving humanity the potential to become something far greater than it had ever been before. Science fiction film often reminds us that we have not fulfilled that potential. Yet, if we have failed to take the fullest advantage of the knowledge offered by science, then surely the fault lies, not with science, but with ourselves. And if we still have a chance to fulfill that potential, it will be science that leads the way.
Chang, Justin. “Film Review: Europa Report.” Variety (June 21, 2013). https://variety.com/2013/film/markets-festivals/film-review-europa-report-1200500661/. Accessed October 2, 2019.
Lemire, Christy. “Europa Report.” Roger Ebert.com (August 2, 2013). https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/europa-report-2013. Accessed October 2, 2019.
Schmidt, Britney, Don Blankenship, Wes Patterson, and Paul Schenk. “Active Formation of ‘Chaos Terrain’ over Shallow Subsurface Water on Europa.” Nature 479 (24 November 2011): 502–505.
Telotte, J. P. “Serenity, Genre, and Cinematization.” Science Fiction Film, Television, and Adaptation: Across the Screens. Eds. J. P. Telotte and Gerald Duchovnay. Routledge, 2012. 127–40.
 The Galilean moons of Jupiter are the four large moons that were first observed by Galileo Galilei around the end of the year 1609.
 This scenario has a basis in scientific fact. In November 2011, scientists at the University of Texas at Austin presented evidence in the prestigious journal Nature that the terrain of Europa appeared to suggest the presence of water beneath the frozen surface. See Schmidt, et al.