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"Europa Report" (2013), Directed by Sebastián Cordero and Produced by Philip Gelatt


porcupine
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No doubt that Star Wars was a seminal film and the very embodiment of space opera, but it was also the start of a long downward spiral wherein "science fiction" [in film, not literature] became synonymous with "action adventure". As someone who loved classic "hard sf", the literature of "what if...?" - of possiblities that sometimes came to pass, like radar or communications satellites in geosynchronous orbits - I really came to resent this conflation of two genres. I mean really, do we need to see Captain Kirk dangling one-handed from a precipice three times in a single film? Oy.

So then comes along a little film that gets hardly any notice when released, a film shot on a small budget on a soundlot in Brooklyn in a short period of time, a film whose producers hired experts from NASA and JPL in order to get all the details right, a film that's about the science even though the plot says "thriller", a film whose special effects serve to reinforce the plausibility of the whole damn thing... Europa Report is one of the most beautiful and realistic science fiction films ever made.

Some people are tired of "found footage" plot devices, but in this film it is an incredibly effective way of telling the story. I especially loved the entirely appropriate sense of claustrophobia resulting from all the fixed-camera shots on the spacecraft. (Not since Rear Window...) Must have been especially challenging for the actors and directors to work around that limitation.

(Very Minor Spoiler Follows)

What is the story? In the very near future, a private company funds a manned mission to Europa to research the possibility that life may exist below the icy surface. Before the ship reaches its destination something goes wrong and communication with Earth is lost, but the crew continue their mission. And afterwards we get a look at that mission, documentary-style.

I don't want to say more. It is a thriller, after all. But it is also good, old-fashioned hard-core science fiction. Almost every little detail of the film is entirely plausible (hydrazine as thruster fuel? yes, there's a paper on it, I checked), though at the moment it's driving me crazy that I can't remember if there was sound in space. It's possible that the way they used the "found footage" it was never actually relevant.

Now available on Netflix.

Trailer here.

(If you're interested in what's involved in long-term manned space expeditions, read Packing for Mars by Mary Roach.)

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