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Getting Hard: Europa Report / Gravity (2013)

By Dom Sinacola · Nov 15, 2013
Spoiler Warning!

Just FYI, this article contains material that might be considered spoilery based on our spoiler policy. In this instance, that includes discussion of everything that happens and everybody who dies. Also, there's literally a flying spaghetti monster at the end of Europa Report.

Halfway through Europa Report, a pivotal event, which we already knew was going to happen, happens. James Corrigan (Sharlto Copley), a junior engineer and one of six astronauts on the spaceship Europa One, dies by asphyxiation after running out of air in his spacesuit. Outside in order to repair damage a solar storm caused, Corrigan’s suit is splashed with some sort of toxic chemical, making it impossible for him to re-enter the airlock without contaminating a whole chunk of the ship. Dangerously low on oxygen, and with no choice but to push unconscious senior engineer Andrei Blok (Michael Nyqvist) back into the ship to save him, unable to join him, Corrigan floats off into the ineffable blackness of space, suffocating 20 minutes later but still tethered to the spaceship. The rest of the crew watches Corrigan’s face through his helmet cam, and then watches it stop moving.

Told in “found” footage, Europa Report—a microbudget science-fiction faux documentary space thriller from Ecuadorian director Sebastián Cordero—meticulously pieces together the story of Europa One, mankind’s first manned starcraft to the Jovian moon Europa. Up until Copley’s character disappears, the science Europa Report employs to get its characters to such an unimaginable place takes center stage for much of the movie’s expositional first half. This is—to pull a phrase from Martin Starr’s character on Party Downhard science fiction, obsessed with the technical aspects of its futuristic speculation in order to emphasize how seriously its director is taking this brave new reality over which we as a human race stand perched. There’s a lot to clear up: why we’re going to Jupiter; how long it will take; how we’re capable of this; who will do this—when we live in a reality where even a manned trip to Mars seems outside the realm of possibility, Europa Report is bent on convincing you otherwise.

So: wee! Watch the human race go where its never gone before! And watch it suffer because of its god-like hubris! It’s a compelling premise, even if made of stock science-fiction-y ideas, and Cordero seems devoted to sussing out every plausible scenario he can dream up given the breadth of plot holes waiting for him down the rabbit hole of his ambition. This is what happens for 45 minutes, just bare exposition, the stage set for a hyper-realistic outer space adventure. Among the physics of artificial gravity and the intricately rendered sound of recycled pee slurped from a Capri Sun bag, we learn all about the mission and its inhabitants and, most importantly, the reason for their voyage in the first place. Apparently a bunch of scientists on earth discovered signs of life below the ice that covers the majority of Europa, so the only choice is to send humans there to investigate. And then a year and one hour later, Sharlto Copley slides on his spacesuit to go outside and die.

Corrigan is the only character who, over the first 12 months of the Europa crew’s mission, talks about his family. He space-Skypes with them often, and in between sips of pee, bothers his fellow travelers with the same questions over and over. Will his son remember him after four years in space? What else is he missing on earth? Why are ladies so moody? Does space mess with their menses something fierce, or is it because they only have two pairs of shoes to pick from? Juxtaposed with the rest of the tight-lipped crew, Corrigan’s doom is foretold. He’s the only character remotely developed, and though it’s a big bloated blue-collar mechanic schtick he’s stuck with, even a movie concerned more with concepts than narrative knows the only way to get any emotional payoff from having a character slowly suffocate—the most boring of cinematic deaths—is to encourage the audience to give half a shit about the guy.

Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is another 2013 hard science-fiction thriller which tries to lay out exposition as smoothly as possible within the confined context of a mission in progress. Like Europa Report, Gravity indulges in surreal moments where people who should know each other intimately after months and months of intensive training are only now, up in space, asking each other the most basic of personal questions. So when Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) pesters Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) about something as simple as whether or not she has any kids at home, it seems like he’s digging for information he definitely should’ve known already. Meanwhile, the two astronauts fix the Hubble Space Telescope framed against the majestic background of Planet Earth, and for a moment we forgive the absurdity of their estrangement to embrace the absurd beauty of the shot itself.

From that moment Gravity unfolds intensely, those brief, humanizing exchanges foregrounding the amount of time we’ll spend in extremely close quarters with Kowalski and Stone. Though Cuaron is as married to the details of space travel as Cordero is, Gravity allows its science to color the survival story at its heart, trusting that its accuracy as a realistic depiction of a NASA mission will keep pace with the special effects spectacle we’re paying $21 to see in IMAX while wearing carcinogenic pieces of plastic on our heads. And if you’re like me, you caught yourself nervously chewing on those 3D glasses not even 20 minutes in, and you are subsequently appalled you put something like that in your mouth.

It’s of course unfair to compare the two pictures, and not just because one’s whole budget probably amounted to what it cost to create 3D floating teardrops in the other. Europa Report has an entirely different scope: to make as tangible as it can the time in the near future when we discover other life in the solar system. Gravity claims that the most tangible thing about our solar system is that we are totally alone.

But their visual languages bear similarities. Incomprehensibly vast cosmic vistas are paired with claustrophobic interiors; stillness becomes an essential motif, even though everything is moving at inhuman speeds. Both directors pull a lot from someone like Sergio Leone, a filmmaker who found alien landscapes in the human face, and like Leone they get off on long close-ups giving way to even longer shots of the vulnerable human body floating endlessly in the abyss. Cuaron pings Kubrick by evoking the warmth of the womb; Cordero just has a character come out and say, “So little space in here, so much space out there.” Trippy.

And both movies have similar missions: to render as immersively as possible the frontier of our modern human endeavor. If you emerge from each thinking that space really sucks, you’re probably not all that far off from the directors’ intent; if we’re going where no man’s gone before, maybe we’re also going where no man should ever go.

Yet when Gravity swims in closely to Stone free-floating inside a tiny escape pod, we watch as she interacts with the equipment around her, reading manuals and haphazardly pressing buttons, and we intuit her rudimentary motions as something more essential to the film than whether or not what she’s doing makes sense. She’s panicked, pushed to the brink, and she’s staving off emotional collapse. Were the same thing to happen in Europa Report, the character would explain what she’s doing, and then later explain it again.

Before Corrigan dies an hour into Europa Report, he disappears from a few scenes. There is one in which the five remaining crew members discuss what to do with the body. “We have to tell his family!”, a biologist woman says. “But we can’t!”, answers the captain, even though it’s been well established that all terrestrial communication has been down due to the solar storm that caused Corrigan’s death in the first place. There’s one where a beleaguered Blok (because he’s Russian, get it) tells the rest of the crew he can’t get over Corrigan’s death. This is how Europa Report messes with chronology, shifting back and forth in time to force tension down our throats. It feels cheap where everything in Gravity feels absolutely earned, but it reveals something more flawed in Europa’s DNA: that the hardness of its science-fiction might be impenetrable.

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