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Europa Report: Meaning and existence

Magnolia Pictures

There’s an uneasy feeling I get on the rare occasion I stand under a moonless night sky—the Milky Way spread thick, full of star-generating factories and galaxies, hot burning suns and all that … space. My chest gets tight. The weight is palatable. I am a speck in the dust of creation, and I feel myself brush against the edges of terror and wonder.

That feeling permeates Europa Report, a science fiction film recounting an ill-fated manned trip to Jupiter’s moon using a docu-drama style with found footage from the Europa One mission. It is an intriguing story full of contrasting images of beauty and the hostility of space that explores the tension between wonder and discovery and human hubris and fragility.

That tension is accentuated by a surprisingly compatible use of a starkly realistic portrayal of space travel and a horror-genre structure.

JPL and NASA scientists consulted on the film, and critics have noted Europa Report as one of the most realistic portrayals of space travel in film.  The crew is made up of fairly plausible scientists and seasoned veterans of the space program. Indeed, it was a pleasure to watch a film and not have to suspend my disbelief scene after scene.

The film’s realistic portrayal includes the dangers and problems associated with human space travel, which is accentuated by its horror-like structure as the hazards of space travel pick off the crew members one by one. But the structure does not dominate the film. Critics have noted that most of the deaths are realistic and plausible events, and there’s a lack of melodrama associated with the genre. For the most part, the structure is subtle and rarely overshadows the story (except for the ending, which feels like it may fall prey to its structure).

The film’s coupling of the realism of the space travel and the training and experience of the mission team against the reality of a vastly unknown and inhospitable space confronts us with human hubris. We too easily fall prey to the illusion that, with all our accomplishments and advancements, we have tamed nature and mastered our planet. While the occasional storm or earthquake makes us pause, we tend to think we are in control for the most part. Interestingly, one of the focuses of modern science and legislation is curbing man’s effect on the planet.

But space exploration reminds us of our limitations. As the advancements and training of the Europa One crew unravel, we are confronted with the illusions of our accomplishments, control and advancements

Europa Report reminds us how frail we actually are. As an ancient poet once put it, “we are dust”:

The life of mortals is like grass,  
They flourish like a flower of the field; 
The wind blows over it and it is gone,
And in its place remembers it no more.~Psalm 103:15-16

Or, as an ancient king once reflected, “Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals” (Ecclesiastes 3:19).

Faced with this reality, we ask ourselves existential questions: what is the meaning of our existence? Or perhaps more basic: is there meaning?

Interestingly, Europa Report’s answer could be seen as a tribute of sorts to a gnostic worldview in which the highest virtue is knowledge and the noblest human act is to sacrifice oneself in its pursuit.

One character reflects “Compared to the breadth of knowledge yet to be known... what does your life actually matter?” At the end of the film, a scientist reflects on the mission: “We now know that our universe is stranger, far more alive, than we had ever imagined. The crew of Europa One changed the fundamental context in which all of humanity understands itself. I don't know what greater measure of success they could have achieved.”

But even in the film itself, those sentiments feel a bit hollow. It doesn’t seem to bring much comfort, if any at all, to the crew or those who reflect on the mission back on earth. Another character, as he works towards saving the mission, mutters, “It’s pointless.”

But the ancient poet and sage tell a different story.

They tell us that there is something greater than our own (illusionary) power and influence, the world around us and even the heavens above. They tell us of One who hovered over the dark depths in the beginning, spoke a word and the hot, dense stuff of life exploded. All those galaxies, star generating factories and burning suns are but a garment spread across the shoulders of a God who spoke the universe into being.

Perhaps, then, what we see when we stand at the edge of the universe—and how we answer those existential questions of meaning—might have something to do with how we view the universe.

In Signs, Graham Hess breaks people down into two groups: those who believe that “there is someone up there, watching out for them” and that “whatever's going to happen, there will be someone there to help them” and those who believe that “whatever happens, they're on their own.” Where you fall determines whether you respond to the unknown with hope or with suspicion and fear.

In Everything New, Jeff Cook puts it in philosophical terms, saying the glasses through which we choose to view the world will determine what we see. “Much of the philosophy coming out in recent years show us that the way we look at the world influences and affects what we claim is true,” says Cook. “That is, all ‘facts’ are theory dependent. As such, the glasses we first decide to wear (or choose to change during the course of our lives) dictate what we believe is real.” This explains why, says Cook, so many brilliant men and women fall on both sides of the God question. Lack of evidence isn’t the problem, says Cook, but rather “how we choose to look at the evidence.”

Europa Report reminds me of those nights I stand on our small beach at the edge of the universe, stripped of my hubris and illusions and bearing the weight of my fragile and tiny existence. But eventually my wonder-terror is saturated by the awe that the One who set it all in motion would not only take notice of such small, fragile creatures on one planet among trillions, but also love us—with a love that burns hotter and denser than the stuff of stars and suns, a love that is remaking and restoring. And that floods the universe with hope and meaning.

It’s not pointless. It’s a miracle.