Science fiction films make space travel seem either like a high-tech version of Stagecoach, with episodic problems, alien encounters, battles, and so on, or, less often, they try to simulate monotonous routine. Space travel is mostly routine—checking data, preparing for predetermined events, communicating with earth, doing nothing. I can imagine that long space voyages, ones that last months or years, will be dull and that part of the challenge will be to keep space travelers entertained and engaged. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) does a better job of any film I’ve seen of imagining the routine and monotony of space travel. In fact, the trip to Jupiter it dramatizes takes so long that most of the crew is placed in suspended animation—to save resources, of course, but also to avoid the craziness that might result from endless months of doing nothing.
The Europa Report (2013; dir. Sebastian Cordero) demands that we think of 2001. If we didn't know better, we could think of this newer film as a kind of sequel to Kubrick's masterpiece. The Europa Report does a good job of presenting the routine of space travel. A crew of scientists is traveling to one of the moons of Jupiter to investigate the possibility of life below a frozen ocean. Unlike 2001, all the crew members stay awake, tending to their duties, socializing to an extent, sending messages home. Most scientists, like most people in general, are not especially interesting, at least of the level of interest that would make them worth putting in a film. The two astronauts in 2001 aren’t very interesting at all: they have the emotionlessness of bureaucrats. Their circumstances are what become interesting. They carry out their assignments and try to solve problems. They don’t agonize or wax hysteric, even in extreme moments. The travelers in Europa Report behave as scientific professionals but they all have personalities—there is the cute Russian, the driven and focused pilot, a young father who misses his family, an older man embittered by past experiences and haunted by a crewman’s death. They are all interesting, in some way, and we grow to like them.
Although The Europa Report at first seems to be a docudrama, gradually a terror plot unfolds. Is one of the crew unbalanced, crazy? Will human error lead to tragedy? Something is out there beneath the frozen oceans of Europa. Once they land, they begin the search for life, and it begins to search for them. Through their own errors, or because the thing beneath the ice is outwitting them, they begin to die. So this becomes one of those films where a crew of people engage in some sort of assignment or project and one by one they’re killed off. The interest of the film becomes who will die next, and how. And, of course, there is also the question of whatever it is beneath the ice that is killing them.
The deaths generally occur off screen or in a flashback. A couple of them are still terrifying, and the final scene is intense and well done. We get a brief glimpse of the thing beneath the ice. We’re supposed to feel happy and exalted that life exists on another world, and sad that seven lives are lost. But it all seems a bit contrived. The faux documentary counterbalances the suspense film. The result is casually interesting, which is not enough.