(Originally published in Pajiba, June 12, 2015)
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.
Europa Report is everything I want out of my hard science fiction. It takes the science seriously, grounds it within the constraints of the real world and then wraps those ideas around human drama. This is a slow movie, and if you’re looking for space action or alien horror, this just isn’t the film for you. And that’s okay.
But this is movie club and the first rule of movie club is that we talk about the movie instead of dancing around anything that might spoil as one is inclined to do in reviews. You all watched it, so let’s get to it.
I absolutely loved the slow pacing of the movie, the gradual slow reveals of problems as they occurred and the bootstrapping duct tape and spit that seems to go part and parcel with gritty and realistic space travel. A big reason why it worked so well was because of the way that they played around with the order of the logs being played. From one perspective, this could be seen as highly manipulative, on the other hand it was so effective as a way of building suspense when there really shouldn’t have been any for a large section of the movie that I’m not even mad, I’m just impressed.
Playing with time like that allows the audience to start making assumptions, to start filling the blanks with all manner of horror. In particular, the way that Sharlto Copley’s character’s death is hidden so that your imagination runs wild is manipulative, but just brilliantly done. It’s such a simple painful human way of dying. Of giving up his life to save his fellow crew member instead of risking both of them dying. And yet the trained science fiction watcher is thinking that he’s going to pop back up, or that he died of an alien parasite, or went nuts because the depression over missing his family led to suicide or worse, etc. The rest of the crew’s attitudes before and after the event play into it as well, so there’s this clever effect of us realizing that what was simple survivor’s guilt and depression we felt an automatic need in the audience to cast wild stories about to explain it instead.
There’s even, if I might reach for a moment, a riffing on the nature of science right there in that effect. This is a film about scientists, about letting the evidence speak for itself, and yet it sets itself up to trick the audience into doing exactly the opposite, wildly speculating when the evidence itself it slim and stark.
The final scenes of the film were simply beautiful and harrowing, coming to a climax with the decision to repair the communications array instead of trying to take off again, of doing so even though it meant unplugging life support and dooming themselves to a horrible death. And in those very last moments, when the final crew member realizes that the transmission has being sent, and with tears streaming down her face opens the doors and by doing so kills herself, just so that the cameras can see clearly what is beneath the ship as it falls under the ice, that single action was the scientific equivalent of raising the flag on Iwo Jima. It was brave, it was terrible, and it was beautiful.
And the combination of both horror and awe in the voices of the ground operators, the sheer monumental respect they had for these men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for knowledge, that sold it the extra mile. We have a thousand stories of soldiers choosing the hill upon which they will make their stand, but this film is one of the very few that makes scientists into soldiers of knowledge and making their own stand.
Every person on that mission died explicitly because they were trying to make the mission a success. Because they were scientists first, with a duty to something for greater than themselves. Yet despite having the entire crew die one by one, the filmmakers resisted any urge to turn it into a Frankenstein tale of warning. Instead they turned it into a dirge of heroes dying for something worth dying for. The film’s lesson is not warning the unprepared from visiting the areas of the map where there be dragons. It is instead a hymn to a universe so much bigger than we know, so much more complicated. Neil deGrasse Tyson has argued passionately that with every scientific advance we have discovered that the universe is bigger, older, and more complex than we have ever known before.
And so we ride pillars of fire into the heavens, strapped into rickety aluminum cans as we suck our air out of glorified scuba gear. We sail to the stars and planets a hair’s breadth from annihilation by cosmic rays and vacuum and hang to survival by our fingernails. The constant Macgyvering of solutions is the purest representation of what our species is capable of. We are mud that willed itself to stand up, and a million years later we are still clawing our way upwards. Space travel isn’t safe, and we will find infinite danger there. And the heroes of the next age will be the ones who go anyway, who throw their lives into the void to call back and tell us what they see.
Because it’s next.
Next week (Friday, June 19th), we’ll be talking about The Machine, which is on your Netflix and is a low budget affair that’s gotten a lot of good reviews (from trusted sources, I learned my lesson with Frequencies). Watch it, come prepared to talk about it.
Now let’s hear what you have to say about Europa Report.