Age of Discovery, by Tyler Smith
I was watching a speech by a political commentator recently and he took a short detour from his prepared remarks to talk about the nature of discovery. He said that there are few things more invigorating than learning something you didn’t already know. And when a country- or a world- all learn this thing at once, it can change the way we look at our lives and our future. However, he went on to say, discovery often comes at a cost. There is tremendous risk involved, as the numerous tragedies that took place in the early days of harnessed electricity, aeronautics, and space travel can attest. Many would say that some things just aren’t worth people’s lives, but our world wouldn’t be what it is today without those willing to put themselves on the line to help humanity.
It was with this in mind that I watched Sebastian Cordero’s Europa Report, a found footage film about a group of astronauts exploring the possibility of life on one of Jupiter’s moons. The journey is often perilous, as the team encounters technical malfunctions, harsh climates, and unexplained phenomena. And while they remain loyal to one another, there is an undercurrent of curiosity. Even in the worst conditions, there are characters that desire to test their boundaries just a little bit more. After all, they’ve come this far; why stop now?
There are certain elements in the film that awaken in us the horror movie instinct, to scream out to the characters to stop what they’re doing and go back to where it’s safe. But, of course, most of us wouldn’t have taken the trip in the first place. And when we see the world that these people are visiting- with its vast, surreal landscape- we almost can’t blame them for wanting to explore it as fully as possible.
The story of the film unfolds in much the way we would expect. The mission is established, we are allowed a little time to get to know the crew, and then things start to go wrong. Crew members die, the problem is contained, and then it’s on with the mission. On that front, Europa Report doesn’t really throw you any curve balls.
However, it is the tone of the film- realistic and clinical- that sets it apart from similar films. Using the found footage conceit to its greatest potential, Cordero really makes us feel like this is all happening. It all feels very real, even in the midst of standard movie tropes. The characters aren’t always the strongest, but that might be because they don’t really fall into the usual, recognizable archetypes. Instead, they just seem like regular men and women that have spent their lives studying mathematics and engineering; probably not the most dynamic personalities to watch, but nonetheless sympathetic.
The film takes a while to get going, but by the end I found it very engaging and I was invested not only in the well-being of the characters, but in the goal of the mission. And when the crew finally makes their discovery, it feels earned, like we deserve to know why those that didn’t make it sacrificed their lives.
Europa Report is a strong piece of science fiction. Like so many other movies and books, the film appears focused on the technical aspects of the world it has created, but, deep down, it’s a human story. It is a film not merely about the people in the story, but about people throughout history. We are where we are now because, somewhere along the line, there were people willing to die for a little bit of progress. Europa Report puts a human face on that sacrifice and allows us to feel the boredom, terror, pride, panic, and ultimate courage these characters are feeling. And, in doing so, the film manages to be about humanity and humans both at the same time.