Sunday, August 2, 2015

Consideration of Works Present: The Europa Report

(Picture from here.)

I haven't done much on films. There's no particular reason not to but I haven't.

I decided to do one on Europa Report because of the press associated with it and Interstellar. Namely, that both films purported to be as scientifically accurate as possible. (See here.)

In the case of Interstellar there's a lot of truth in that. After all, when you have Kip Thorne as a scientific adviser it's hard to go far wrong. The problem with Interstellar isn't the science in the film. It's the film itself-- but that's a topic for another post.

In order to get at the science in Europa Report I'm going to have to talk about how the film ends. So, if you haven't seen the film and want to preserve your childlike innocence, leave now.

Okay? Then, let's begin.

Europa Report is about a manned mission to the Jupiter moon Europa. Since the entire thrust of missions looking for life in this solar system is founded on follow the water, Europa is a likely candidate. It actually has more liquid water than earth. (Here is a good description of NASA's proposed mission.) There's a fair bit of good science here along with a fair amount of drama put in for no good reason.

Quick plot summary: Europa One goes to Jupiter. After about six months of mission time they get hit by a solar storm knocking out communication. Two crew members go out to fix it, one gets killed by a plot device. The other one is haunted by guilt. Ship makes it into orbit around Europa and drills into the ice, releasing a probe. It gets disabled mysteriously. The ship lands. Crew drills through ice and gets samples: life. Biologist sees a light and must investigate in person. Ice breaks and she falls through-- camera suggests strongly she's been eaten or the equivalent. Ship tries to leave but engine malfunctions and the ship crashes back on Europa, cracks the ice and begins to sink. But the lone survivor manages to fix the communication before the ship sinks beneath the ice (and are eaten by something the looks like a tapeworm with a sea anemone for a head.) Earth receives communication and recognizes noble scientific heroes.

Now, as I said there's some good science in the film. Not great but good. There's a lot of false drama. By this I mean things that the filmmakers put in to keep our interest since the fact of finding life practically next door in the solar system won't hold us through the popcorn. Things such as the solar storm knocking out communication such that a person dies in the repairs, leaving the guilt ridden survivor there to send us a message in the end. Things like the ship missing it's landing spot. Or the engines failing on take off-- pretty much everything at the end.

Now, if you wanted to see this done right, watch Space Odyssey from the BBC. In that series the drama derives right out of what they're going through. For example, a man gets cancer from the radiation on the trip and can't use chemo since it will contaminate the water in the ship, poisoning his crew mates. Sure, a solar flare can happen. But the way they repair it, and how one crew member has to sacrifice himself for another is just bad mission planning.

You don't have to believe what is happening on the screen; you have to suspend disbelief. It's what makes the tag line for Christopher Reeves' Superman so irritation: "You will believe a man can fly." Well, no, I won't What I will do is suspend my belief that a man can't fly for the duration of this film. Didn't work for going back in time, though.

That's the problem with Europa Report: it doesn't have the courage of its convictions. I'm convinced the filmmakers initially thought we could cope with a dramatic film about science and then got scared and lost its nerve. I mean they made a lovely space suit. Europa is based on real imagery. The creatures they built could happen-- probably not on Europa, but somewhere. Weightlessness was based on actual weightlessness.

I can even suspend my disbelief that humans will ever get there. The only way we'll ever get to Europa is with robots.  Jupiter is a roiling sea of radiation and until China is ready, the rest of the manned space program is a joke. But enough of that.

I could have managed the false drama-- hey, I like a lot of films with predictable and tired drama. It's not a deal breaker. But Europa Report completely falls apart at the end.

Let's think about Europa for a moment. It's has a surface of ice on a body of water, probably with a rocky core. In a vacuum. The weight of the ice is pressing down on the water, right? There's no air pressure, right? What happens when the ice breaks? 500 km high geysers of water blasting into space. That's what.

So anyone breaking the ice to the water on Europa is blasted out into space. See a light shining through the ice? Unlikely the ice is transparent-- glacier ice isn't. Seems like there's an inherent selection against animals just hanging around on the surface. Besides which, I suspect that predators (And these were predators. No mistake.) would not dwell at the bottom of the ice flow. I mean it's possible if there were some sunlight getting through but I doubt it. I don't think there would be enough light and the places there were would likely be the ones most vulnerable to rupture-- the animals would run away rather than stay there.

A better way to do it would have been to can the false drama and get to Europa and build a mission base there. A pressurized bubble. Do all of the things you want to do-- false drama and all-- on Europa. Let's say the actually try to attract predators by mimicking the equivalent of sea weed or prey. Inevitably, they misjudge the situation (as they did in the actual film) and everyone dies but not before getting of the noble communication. That could have been good drama and good science.

I think people think of Europa Report as a good science film because it's so much better than so many others.

That's not a high bar. That's barely a paint stripe on the road.

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