The Joy and Fear in Space Exploration

Europa Report poster
Toward Europa’s ice

Europa Report
Sebastián Cordero, director
Start Motion Pictures and Misher Films, USA, 2013
90 minutes

Gravity
Alfonso Cuarón, director
Warner Brothers, USA, 2013
91 minutes

NASA’s human space program is currently adrift. The space shuttle has been retired, and American astronauts now hitch rides to the space station. Furthermore, it is unclear whether the next big program will land people on the Moon (again), a nearby asteroid, Mars—or perhaps, for the foreseeable future, nowhere at all. Desperate, space enthusiasts have to settle for high-budget science fiction coming out of Hollywood showing aliens fighting with robots or a dumbed-down and militarized Trek universe that abandons the idealistic spirit of exploration created by Gene Roddenberry. In this context, two new films, the low-budget Europa Report and the visually stunning Gravity, offer a much-needed breath of fresh air.

Set sometime in the middle of this century, Europa Report recounts the journey of a multinational team of six astronauts to Jupiter’s moon Europa. The mission is sponsored by a private company that mixes the adventure of space exploration with some of the exploits of reality television. Sebastián Cordero’s film falls in the “found-footage” genre. From the beginning, we know that something went wrong with the mission. Cameras installed in the spacecraft provided footage of the astronauts’ journey that allows us to piece together their fate.

A mission to Europa, one of Jupiter’s four large moons, makes sense. Beneath its ice-covered surface lies an ocean of water1 kept liquid through subsurface volcanism fueled by the tidal forces of Jupiter. Conditions near the volcanic vents, thought to be similar to those found here on Earth, may provide a fertile environment for the origin and sustainability of life.

The film and its characters have a restrained quality. The astronauts are all depicted as competent, rational individuals making hard decisions under high pressure, but they are also willing to sacrifice their lives to advance scientific knowledge. Watching Europa Report reminded me of the trials of Ernest Shackleton and other early-20thcentury polar explorers. The film tries to balance the fear and the joy of the unknown, and it largely succeeds.

Despite its low budget, the film is beautifully shot. In particular, the cinematography makes clever use of eight fixed cameras in the spacecraft. The production design, for both the spacecraft and the Europan landscape, is outstanding. Unfortunately, with the exception of the lead engineer (played by Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist), the characters are not developed enough for viewers to care for them individually. But this is a minor quibble for a movie unequivocally celebrating the spirit of space exploration.

Europa Report largely takes place inside a spaceship. The beauty of space itself is more clearly on display in Gravity, which tells a relatively simple story. Two astronauts on a servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST)—yes, this is an alternative universe in which astronauts still ride space shuttles to the telescope—are left on their own when debris from a Russian satellite damages the shuttle beyond repair and kills the crew members who had remained on board.

On its surface, this is a high-brow disaster fi lm. However, director Alfonso Cuarón provides a spectacular immersive experience, with enough suspense to keep you at the edge of your seat throughout the film. The breathtaking 17-minute opening sequence (shot in a single take) warrants the full price of a 3D admission. Commenting to the New York Times about this sequence, Cuarón explained “[w]e wanted to slowly immerse audiences into fi rst the environment, to later immerse them into the action, and the ultimate goal of this whole experiment was for the audiences to feel as if they are a third character that is floating with our other two characters in space2. Indeed, for most of us, this is as close as we can get to experiencing outer space.

Although the movement of astronauts and objects in space is very well depicted, some artistic choices made by the filmmakers led to scientific inaccuracies. For example, the orbits of HST and the International Space Station are different enough that it is nearly impossible to move from one to the other (as the astronauts in the movie end up doing). A tweet by Neil deGrasse Tyson correctly noted that outside of her suit, Sandra Bullock’s hair should have been floating freely above her head in the space station’s zero gravity environment. But these minor issues pale compared to the spirit and the overall experience of the film.

Where 2001, Solaris, and Contact used the premise of outer space to explore larger philosophical questions, Europa Report and Gravity focus on the perils, dangers, promise, and gratifi cation of space exploration. They also offer a clear reminder that outer space is largely hostile to life developed on Earth—but that is not, in itself, reason enough to stop space exploration. At one point in Europa Report, when asked whether walking on Europa is “creepy,” an astronaut retorts, “It is cosmically astounding.” We don’t know when the U.S. human space program will regain its footing, but I was refreshed watching these films celebrate the joy, fear, and idealism of space exploration.

References

1. D. Stevenson, Science 289, 1305 (2000).
2. www.nytimes.com/video/movies/100000002478606/anatomy-of-a-scene-gravity.html

by Salman Haameed in Science Vol. 342 p.695, 8 November 2013

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