Words by Darren TYNAN
Indie sci-fi flick, Europa Report, may rehash many of the inveterate and tireless conventions associated with science-fiction, but at least it does so in a way that relies less on overdone Hollywood festoonery and focuses more on those gritty, dark avenues of human speculation and curiosity that make the genre worthwhile.
As six astronauts venture into deep space to investigate the possibility of life under the icy surface of one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, their troublesome journey and subsequent discovery is examined and revisited through non-chronological sequences of ‘found footage’ from the ship. The film unfolds with a documentary feel to it, relying on claustrophobic interior scenes of the space vessel, interactions between crew members that concern scientific and logical data (yet still have an undercurrent of frustration and doubt, the Star Trek equivalent of Spock’s emotional side), capricious interruptions in communication and unnerving silences.
Europa Report begins with a simple but loaded question: ‘What happened?’ Although this dialogue sparks an understanding that the discovery mission of Europa One was a catastrophe, you have to wonder if the film’s director, Sebastián Cordero, gives too much away so early in the film. Is this a tactic that Cordero uses to inform the inevitable catastrophe of a space mission so far-reaching and dubious, the efforts of a vain and grandiose humanity mired in cosmic indifference? Or is it just a directorial decision that was overlooked?
One of the best aspects of the dialogue in this film is the effective use of silence, and the uncomfortable, tedious breaks in conversation that imply frustration where outbursts of language would seem too brazen. Whereas some science fiction works will revel in action sequences showing elite squadrons of laser beam gunmen that gallivant hither and thither about space, complete with technology to create wormholes that seem to suck in all credibility that surround them, Europa Report takes a slower route.
When Andrei Blok, Chief Engineer on the ship, is questioned about his decline of health, he makes the desperate remark: ‘How should I be recovering, exactly?’ It’s not so much the content of the query, which is a rational and inquisitive response, but the wavering tone of it as he comes to accept that potentially, no one can answer him. The pervasive silence that follows exacerbates the crew’s skepticism and bouts of self-reflexive doubt.
As Europa One and its crew deteriorate quicker than you can say ‘ballet and rocket science at 125 000 miles an hour’, the crux of their dilemma and situation becomes quite Lovecraftian. It would seem an immense feat to venture so far into space, to wear such ‘lofty’ human achievement on our shoulders as it respectfully represents the grandeur of human achievement, but the fact remains – despite being hypothetical, what’s been discovered and traveled is such a laughably minute portion of known space that it conjures a sense of giddying isolation and spatial nausea. If it were indeed the single greatest achievement in human history, you may consider why we should even be prioritising finding microbial organisms on other moons, when our own planet requires focus, funding and attention to assure even the most basic elements of our ecosystem are sustained.
To consider the last retrieved footage of Europa One is also to speculate this question – Why should we presume that if there were intelligent, extra-terrestrial life, that they should care about us at all or deem humanity significant as a species? According to Lovecraft, these kind of ‘envisioned beings’ are part of a universe which is cold and mechanical; they exist beyond the thin veil of reality that we as human beings cloak ourselves with, to protect one’s faculties from the sublime terror of the abstract, the alien, the incomprehensible. They are the ‘Old Ones’ who wait in the spaces in-between – they are not spiritually warm as they render humans insane. Another scene in the film highlights this particularly well, and is sure to delight those with a craving for sci-fi terror.
“They walk unseen and foul in lonely places where the Words have been spoken and the rites howled through at their seasons. The wind gibbers with Their voices, and the earth mutters with Their consciousness. They bend the forest and crush the city, yet may not forest or city behold the hand that smites. (Joshi 132)” (Dunwich Horror, H.P Lovecraft)
Lovecraft’s dark world of cosmicism portrays the human species as “nothing but mere insects that plague the surface of this insignificant planet we dare call our own”, and which presents a world “where instead of any heart-warming spirituality there is nothing but the cold dark void between the stars” (Halldórsson 2010). Here, Europa Report’s themes revolve around this Lovecraftian sense of cosmic indifference. And what science fiction film is complete without a “trapped out of the airlock’ situation to conjure such a notion of delectable dread? Unlike the crackling intercom dialogue in Gravity, there aren’t any religious notions of redemption and hope offered as a way of dealing with the rough end of the cosmic stick (which any intelligent space cadet would understand, considering their ventures into unknown territory).
Instead, James drifts away from the ship and receives neutral, paced dialogue from one of his team members: ‘I’m sorry James’, they resignedly state. His realisation of inescapable death becomes frantic and he professes his love for his fellow humans – the only tangible, relatable thing left as he drifts away into a cosmic void. His breathing decreases, becomes muffled and desperate, and the screen is gradually enveloped in darkness as the ship recedes into the corner of his last remaining vision. His final exertions are a series of screams – a raw, human outcry stifled by the unremittingly hostile conditions of space. The scene builds toward a sense of frustration about a doomed search for knowledge that ends in disaster; it offers this yearning and calamitous curiosity as an inherent aspect of human nature that will prevail against all odds.