Amidst the assault of noisy sci-fi summer blockbusters, the independent film Europa Report has been building momentum among science purists for a narrative that heavily incorporates scientific accuracy.
Produced by Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner’s Magnolia Pictures and starring Sharlto Copley (Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, Elysium), the documentary-style thriller chronicles a crew of ill-fated astronauts who journey to Jupiter moon Europa in search of alien life. The presentation involves a cinematic conceit of found footage from internal and external spaceship monitors, achieved through eight simultaneously running cameras and four editors. The movie, which earned high praise from critics, has been available through iTunes and on demand platforms, and is slated for an August 2 theatrical release and a 5 p.m. (ET) Reddit Ask Me Anything.
The buzz was enough to pack San Diego’s Comic-Con Hall H—coincidentally, on July 20, the date of Apollo 11’s 1969 moon landing, and earn praise from the real deal: Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineers who had planned real space missions.
"There haven’t been too many hard science sci-fi films in recent times. So it’s cool to be a part of one that’s gotten such an amazing response," says Sebastián Cordero, the film’s Ecuadorian-born director. "We presented the film at JPL, and to see that representatives from so many scientific communities liked it has been the most rewarding so far."
When Cordero first saw Philip Gelatt’s screenplay two years ago, he was taken with its attention to scientific detail. "I wanted to stick to as much scientific realism as possible and was relieved when the producers were into that as well, and not something that would be sacrificed along the way," he says.
"We thought it would be cool to make a movie about first contact that took as few creative liberties as possible and tell a story that would be a realistic interpretation of life," adds producer Ben Browning. "The science had to be right and a huge part of the film’s DNA, otherwise it would violate the whole purpose."
But science, it turned out, not only informed the movie, but motivated the plot. Cordero drew inspiration from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the 1989 Apollo 11 documentary For All Mankind, and Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars. Early in the script-tweaking process, the filmmakers brought in two science advisors—JPL planetary scientists and astrobiologists Steve Vance and Kevin Hand—to advise on everything from Europa terrain, its likelihood for life, radiation exposure, and realistic portrayals of mission operations and scientists.
"Talking to our science advisors, the most likely scenarios for alien life led to Europa," says Cordero. Jupiter’s fourth largest moon contains a slightly salty ocean—62 miles deep and [with] two to three times the volume of water on Earth—under an icy shell roughly six miles thick.
"The original script had the crew’s big finding on the surface," says Cordero. "But talking to Kevin and Steve, it became obvious that whatever the crew was looking for would not be found on the surface. So we worked out how the ice could crack and the ship could slip through, allowing for a big discovery underneath. That ended up adding to the tension.
"Sometimes, following the science presented real challenges in figuring out the best way for going from A to B in the plot," he adds. "But we felt we were enriching the story so much from the research that it was worth going through the trouble."
The filmmakers addressed the extreme radiation exposure in space—not as the overdone sci-fi trope of radiation shields failing—but as a spaceship design issue and the impetus for a deadly spacewalk, to set up a plot mechanism to create danger. But when they learned that the redundancy in specialists and equipment employed in real-life space missions made a botched spacewalk unlikely, they had to rethink a plausible reason.
"We knew how it was supposed to end. We didn’t know what was scientifically the best way, because the minute you start talking to anyone involved in space travel, you realize they take so many precautions," says Cordero.
"Every technology has to be redundant: two pilots, two engineers, two scientists, because if you lose one, you still have the other to perform the job," he adds. "We modeled the crew after that. If anything breaks down, you need a replacement. So to lose someone in a spacewalk—which is common in sci-fi movies, but not in reality—you need the right justification. It wasn’t so easy. We came up with a chemical, hydrazine [a carcinogen in spacecraft fuel], that contaminates the spacesuit and doesn’t allow people to come back in the ship. It put the crew in a situation where they needed to make a decision, and it made the scene more complex and tense from a psychological standpoint."
Sometimes, scientific influence took more subtle forms of unproven, yet plausible technology in the background to enable suspension of disbelief—such as a spacecraft that circulated recycled wastewater in its walls as a radiation shield.
Despite Hollywood’s increasing use of science advisors, Vance and Hand note that incubation time and receptivity are mandatory for this kind of achievement. "A critical element is having a creative team that wants to work with scientists to optimize that intersection of great storytelling, depth of characters, and science realism," says Hand. "There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit for getting things right. These guys understood how science could motivate a plotline without compromising the story. I think some writers are just lazy. It’s easier to blow something up than to come up with a compelling reason to motivate some aspect of a plotline."
And sometimes, science makes things just a little easier. At one point, an actor was brainstorming with Vance for some realistic language to show his understanding of cabin pollution. "They had some complex wording until I mentioned, `You know, at JPL, there’s a device for a vehicle cabin monitor called a VCAM’—a Vehicle Cabin Atmosphere Monitor that, at the time, was on the space station monitoring organics," Vance laughs. "He said, `Oh cool! We’ll just say VCAM.’ "