How do you reason with a humanoid? (And other outer space movie challenges)

Europa Report’: The trouble with outer space films

6 minute read
'Europa Report's' crew: Young, muscular and clueless.
'Europa Report's' crew: Young, muscular and clueless.
For space scientists, the ultimate question is: Does life exist in the vast reaches of the cosmos? But for the rest of us, an equally pressing question is: Will a truly intelligent and watchable film about space exploration ever be made?

There are a few, of course"“ by Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky and Ridley Scott"“ but here's the problem: In order to explore space in a movie, there must be a spaceship, a crew, technological operations, time, and space itself. Plus, at some point, there must be some serious discussion or representation of ideas.

These relatively simple and formulaic requirements for films about space exploration are probably what make them so lacking, most of the time. Films require images, action and a plot— and, when you really get down to it, sailing though outer space for decades can be pretty boring to look at.

Kubrick's solution

Kubrick's solution in 2001: A Space Odyssey was to set his magnificent, sparkling white spaceship a-waltzing with a milky spheroid moon, as Strauss's Blue Danube Waltz orchestrated the audience into images and memories of another era entirely. Throughout 2001, Kubrick's masterful legato pacing and the exacting cinematography of Geoffrey Unsworth rendered outer space as a form of slow motion to indulge in while the plot and its philosophical implications about man-machine communication and technology unfolded.

Which is to say, at the center of all space exploration movies there are "ideas." Let's call them the "Star Trek" queries:

Are there aliens or other life forms in the universe? Are they friendly and intelligent, or are they evil, aggressive monsters? What happens when humans and aliens first encounter each other? What happens when the ship loses contact with mission control? How will the debates between moral constraints vs. the pursuit of knowledge be argued? What happens when the technology fails? Are humans, ultimately, dominated by their emotions or intelligence? Is it possible to conduct conversations with slimy entities, tiny flickering lights or machines in the form of robots, exotic women, telepathic communication systems?

Reasoning with insects

For most moviegoers, rightly, the deeper questions posed by any film should be answered as quickly as possible, so the action and spectacle can take over. Film buffs know from the start that there is no reasoning with toothy, oversized insects, menacing humanoids or belligerent computers.

Moreover, for any film to be successful— especially at the box office"“ the plot must be resolved, evil must be defeated and heroism must win the day. Dealing with philosophical conundrums only slows things down. Besides, most characters in sci-fi movies don't seem capable of thinking things through in any case.

Outside of the movies, real astronauts and scientists tend to have spent their lives studying and researching their subjects. They may be passionate about their work, but in terms of their looks and attitudes they're just ordinary people.

Inside a spaceship movie cabin, on the other hand, sharp-looking, well-muscled young male actors and fashion model actresses, wearing perfect makeup, speak techno-gibberish and react emotionally to every new piece of data. As for the token minorities on nearly every sci-fi spaceship, they— like the blondes in slasher flicks— will surely be the first to be infected, gored, grinded and mauled by whatever attacks the ship.

Soviet analogy

Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 film, Solaris (based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem), is an exception in terms of character and the treatment of ideas. In it, a moody, ruminating astronaut/scientist, Kris Kelvin, finds himself on a spaceship observing a planet, Solaris, which appears to be an inert and malevolent ocean of consciousness. It has already damaged the crew, who may have been driven insane as a result of their work and exposure to radiation.

Kelvin himself is no Captain Kirk, we soon learn, since the film is framed, in part, as a response to an inquiry by the Russian government about his past and handling of the mission. Eventually Kelvin comes to doubt his own perceptions and lapses into anxiety when he suffers recollections, or hallucinations, of his dead lover.

With these personal and political overtones, audiences quickly grasp that the planet Solaris is a metaphor, like Alexander Solzhenitsyn's novel, Cancer Ward, for the Soviet Union itself and its layers of deception, moral decay and dubious scientific pursuits. Space truly becomes not just what is "out there" for adventure, but a complex state of being.

(When Solaris was remade in 2001 by Steven Soderbergh with George Clooney, the themes turned existential and far more about romantic loss than anything political).

Living quarters

Tarkovsky's Solaris looked liked it was produced in a garage and back yard. Unlike the extraordinary sets in 2001 and Ridley Scott's Alien, which portray the interior of a space as marvelous techo-living quarters, rooms in the space station in Solaris look like a home office in a Russian apartment building. Although, during the film, the imagery of the floating planet seen from the portal on the ship is evocative, the film's most compelling elements are the state of mind of the characters and the scene-by-scene representation of ideas.

By undermining an audience's expectation of the architecture and interior design of a space ship, Tarkovsky— who likely lacked the budget to make a Hollywood-style movie in any case— sustained the narrative as theatricalized drama more than a cinematic spectacle.

A Kandinsky maze

Like Solaris, Sebastian Cordero's Europa Report frames itself as part documentary, relating the fate of a 22-month mission of a space ship to Jupiter's moon, Europa. The object was to explore water found beneath the ice; the ship and crew were lost, but data and video recordings were recovered.

These are presented variously in multi-screen formats, sometimes with four or six images at once, or in clipped angular videos or blurred sequences. They alternate between being as normal as the digital images of calibrations that we see daily splayed across screens and the stuttering flashes of a damaged DVD.

The film also provides stunning shots of bright passing geometric patterns and skewed bands of color, suggesting to me a maze wallpapered with prints by Klee, Kandinsky and Mondrian. When the ship closes in on Europa and Jupiter, the cinematic representation of the surfaces, landscapes and light become stunning.

Nice people, or scientists?

Predictably, this mission is manned by a young crew— equally exchangeable for a young team of TV series surgeons or crime scene investigators— gripped by a secret desire to discover alien life forms. The scenic elements also include a messy, cramped two-story spaceship cabin, with some areas that allow for gravity-free poses.

The food on board is bland, and so are the characters. I would not send them into space. (One male explorer tells mission control that they really blew it by providing the women with only two outfits.) They know which dials to monitor, and they seem like nice people— but not plausibly accomplished scientists. When then things go wrong, they do their best, but space and the ideas they are involved with are just too much for them to handle. But of course, the same could be said for the makers of outer-space films.♦

To read a response, click here.

What, When, Where

Europa Report. A film directed by Sebastian Cordero. At the Ritz Bourse, 400 Ludlow St.

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