The Europa One mission was the first attempt to send men and women into deep space, and the first privately funded deep space mission, a journey to Jupiter’s mysterious icy moon of Europa, to explore beneath the surface to the oceans beneath, in hopes of establishing whether it was possible primitive life existed, or had ever existed, within.
The first English language film from Ecuadorean director Sebastián Cordero, he establishes features of both found footage and mockumentary, as Doctors Samantha Unger and Nikita Solokov (Embeth Davidtz and Dan Fogler) offer comments on the recordings returned to Earth, both those made public during the mission and materials previously unseen which reveal the setbacks which occurred during the transit across the solar system and the events which unfolded upon arrival at that distant world.
A mission to Europa has been talked of in science and science fiction for many years; the exploration of the subglacial Lake Vostok in Antarctica has been seen by some scientists as a dry run for a more ambitious recreation in the outer solar system, and in Arthur C Clarke’s 2010 Odyssey Two the need to preserve the aquatic inhabitants of Europa directed the Monolith’s intentions.
While sidelined in Peter Hyams’ adaptation to keep both budget and running time manageable, Clarke’s original novel features an extended section where the Chinese vessel Tsien lands on the surface to refuel and is accidentally destroyed by an encounter with one of those lifeforms, drawn to the bright lights of the ship.
With a storyline lifted directly from the narrative of the Tsien expedition, the opening half hour of Europa Report is well constructed,, introducing the situation and subtly educating the audience on the genuine science of the background without turning into a lecture, while the documentary frame breaks the tiresome contrivance of the found footage. The set itself is detailed and complex, and the exterior visuals brilliantly rendered, recognising that the light balance of faint stars would be blown out by the glare of nearby objects.
It is when the crew arrive at their destination that Philip Gelatt’s script immediately spontaneously aborts any resemblance to intelligent science fiction, and rather than finding his own voice to tell his own story, Cordero responds by invoking every tired cliché of found footage, transposing it to the futuristic setting.
Europa One and Phaeton in flight
Suddenly, trained scientists are arguing like teenagers lost in the woods, flickering monitor screens replacing unreliable torches, the instability of the shifting ice instead of the wind howling against canvas tents, jump cuts and speeded footage stylistic intrusions which distract from attempts at veracity elsewhere.
The two major influences are the Paranormal Activity series, seen in the montages of monitors running through a procession of images of deserted rooms, and The Blair Witch Project, the close ups of the astronauts in their space suits recalling the doomed film students of that backwoods tale.
The command modules of Europa One and Phaeton
The Europa One itself is also reminiscent on the Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov from 2010 Odyssey Two, but even more apparent is the huge influenced by a little seen but hugely superior TV movie written by Michael Taylor and Ronald D Moore and directed by Peter Berg.
With exterior visuals rendered, lit and framed almost exactly like the Phaeton, the irony is made greater in that Virtuality was in many ways a satire on that equally derided first cousin to found footage, reality television, a fact which no doubt contributed to Fox’s failure to recognise the brilliant potential in the single produced episode of that potential show.
While undeniably reminiscent of his work on Battlestar Galactica and Caprica, composer Bear McCreary can at least claim the work plagiarised is his own, his unmistakable strings looping and swirling around the soundtrack, counterpoint to his plaintive piano, an accompaniment more enjoyable than the film which inspired it.
Europa One approaches Jupiter; Phaeton approaches Neptune