Go on a little journey with me. Well, to be honest, it’s not going to be a little journey at all. It is going to be a very, very long journey. 390 million miles to be nearly exact. It will take the better part of two years to reach our destination. In that time, we will be riding in a vehicle about the size of a small apartment building. What seems like a roomy living environment at first will quickly start to claustrophobically close in on us as the weeks and months stretch by.
Immediately outside the walls of our vehicle is the infinitely inhospitable vastness of space. The opportunity to step outside of this vehicle comes only at the greatest peril and will only be attempted under the most dire of circumstances. Our vehicle is a technological marvel but, compared to the environment it travels in, is profoundly small and vulnerable. With every mile we traverse, the one place in the universe that offers us safety gets farther and farther away.
The air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink... absolutely everything required by a human body for survival will be brought along with us and recycled for continued use. We cannot stop off anywhere to restock or refuel. If something breaks, we will have to fix it on the fly, as it were, with the tools and supplies we have on hand. There will be no rescuers, no hope for survival beyond what we can provide for ourselves.
MINOR SPOILERS BELOW for Europa Report
Of course, you and I are safe at home on Earth. This is not the case for the explorers in Europa Report. Carrying a crew of six, the Europa One spacecraft is, as the title of the mission suggests, on a mission to explore for potential life on Jupiter’s moon, Europa.
As the story begins, we learn two vital things. The first is that sometime shortly before the audience joined the story, this crew has already experienced a critical technical failure and has lost one of its members. This knowledge sets up a mounting tension for us, as we wait to find out what bad things have already happened and how these circumstances are going to affect the mission as it moves forward.
The second thing we become aware of is that this spacecraft has been created with the capability to record its inhabitants and (most) all of their activities. And it is this “found footage,” fixed camera perspective that brings the audience so terrifyingly into the story, making the viewer a ghost member of this threatened crew. It heightens the claustrophobia and escalates our sense of terrible vulnerability as the story unfolds.
When we land on Europa, we are thrown into the same uncertain environment as the crew moves forward with their study of this utterly foreign moon. We suffer from the same limited and confusing information as the crew desperately tries to understand what might (or might not) be a threat. The sentiment uttered by the chief engineer, “What if I can’t believe or trust my own eyes…,” is shared by all. The tension between wanting to know - to discover - and the fear of that same unknown is overwhelming.
Europa Report succeeds in presenting one of the most realistic depictions of near-future space exploration ever told on the big screen. By isolating the audience through a controlled point of view and establishing right up front that things are not going well, it gives us one of the most terrifying rides we can imagine. We are mere specks in an infinite black filled with untold threats and wonders.
By the final scenes in the movie, we are forced to acknowledge what lengths we might be willing to go to in the service of discovery. In the end, the struggle is not for survival... but to share knowledge, to advance, to move forward into a new universe. We are left with the words, “Compared to the breadth of knowledge yet to be known, what does your life really matter.” That answer might just be the scariest thing of all.