The first time I watched “2001: a Space Odyssey,” I was in my early teens. I remember it being ponderous and slow, full of long shots and scenery, confusing and seemingly unrelated scenes, and an ending that made the beginning of the film seem downright intelligible. Most of my movie experiences prior to seeing “2001” had been with straightforward Hollywood blockbusters, so I was unprepared for a film that required contemplation.
While I didn’t understand most of what happened, I very much wanted to. The elusive nature of meaning in the Kubrick film was my first step into a much larger world. My appetite for good science fiction started there. “Europa Report,” which is available now On Demand and will hopefully get a full screening in Chattanooga sometime in the future, reminded me of my first encounter with hard science fiction and as a result jumped to the top of my list of the best films released this year. It has similar pacing, a slow burn that leads to a fascinating conclusion, and makes a genuine effort to show the realities of inter-solar system space travel. There are no hyperdrives or wormholes—just long years of living in a cramped environment with a handful of other people, risking everything to satisfy the most natural of human drives: curiosity.
The film uses the “found footage” style of storytelling, a style that has become something of a cliché in low-budget filmmaking. It’s especially popular in the horror genre, as it lends credence and realism to the film itself and gives it a leg up on viral marketing. However, this style of film has to be careful to create realistic reasons for the camera to be running. The “Paranormal Activity” films stop being convincing as sequels are added because it becomes harder and harder to believe that that much footage of a demonic presence was recorded. “Europa Report” can sidestep this issue because the story revolves around a scientific expedition to Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter. It’s the first deep-space mission of its kind and every second of it needs to be recorded for research purposes. For a good portion of the movie, these images are being sent back to Earth in real time. Because the footage will be used to inform the public of the mission, there is a good reason for exposition and explanation of the mission’s purpose, of the technology used, and of the scientists’ roles on the ship. The film works because the storytelling device was so aptly chosen.
However, because of the storytelling style and certain plot choices towards the end of the film, “Europa Report” may be unfairly classified in the horror genre. While there are certainly some unsettling moments, the film itself is a celebration of an indomitable human spirit. The will to explore, to seek, to discover, overrides any thought of self preservation. The audience in a horror film might hide their eyes or shout at the screen when a character leaves the safety of the group, but “Europa Report” shows the necessity of taking that step. It’s about empowering rather than cowering. We understand and agree with the decisions made by the characters, because the film takes the time to show us just how long they waited to have the opportunity. Too often science fiction takes the easy way out, creating fantastic technology to solve problems of distance or comfort, eliminating the uneasy tension of realistic space travel. “Europa Report” shows how difficult the journey is and as a result we understand that the crew leaves the spaceship because they have the responsibility to do so.
There isn’t much about this film that I didn’t like. It’s a low-budget endeavor, yet it looks good, has good performances, and is written in a way that is neither pandering nor inscrutable. Good space science fiction is very hard to come by—most attempts are overblown space operas with epic explosions and little else. This film was grounded in a way that hasn’t been seen in sci-fi in very long time, commenting on the privatization of the space industry and the current status of our technology. It’s a film that celebrates curiosity and rewards intelligence.