Sunday, November 10, 2013

My review of "Europa Report" and "Gravity" in Science

by Salman Hameed

It has been uber hectic for the past couple of weeks, and hence the lack of posts here. There is a backlog of fascinating and relevant articles - and I will try to post some of those in this coming week. In the mean time, I have reviewed two recent sci-fi (or for the cool kids: Sy Fy) films, Europa Report and Gravity, for the journal Science. Both of these films take science seriously. But perhaps, more importantly, they both understand the spirit and desire for space exploration. Here is are some excerpts from the review, but if you want to read the whole review, you can find it here (pdf):

The Joy and Fear in Space Exploration
NASA's human space program is currently adrift. The space shuttle has been retired, and American astronauts now hitch rides to the space station. Furthermore, it is unclear whether the next big program will land people on the Moon (again), a nearby asteroid, Mars—or perhaps, for the foreseeable future, nowhere at all. Desperate, space enthusiasts have to settle for high-budget science fiction coming out of Hollywood showing aliens fighting with robots or a dumbed-down and militarized Trek universe that abandons the idealistic spirit of exploration created by Gene Roddenberry. In this context, two new films, the low-budget Europa Report and the visually stunning Gravity, offer a much-needed breath of fresh air.
Set sometime in the middle of this century, Europa Report recounts the journey of a multinational team of six astronauts to Jupiter's moon Europa. The mission is sponsored by a private company that mixes the adventure of space exploration with some of the exploits of reality television. Sebastián Cordero's film falls in the “found-footage” genre. From the beginning, we know that something went wrong with the mission. Cameras installed in the spacecraft provided footage of the astronauts' journey that allows us to piece together their fate.
A mission to Europa, one of Jupiter's four large moons, makes sense. Beneath its ice-covered surface lies an ocean of water (1) kept liquid through subsurface volcanism fueled by the tidal forces of Jupiter. Conditions near the volcanic vents, thought to be similar to those found here on Earth, may provide a fertile environment for the origin and sustainability of life.
The film and its characters have a restrained quality. The astronauts are all depicted as competent, rational individuals making hard decisions under high pressure, but they are also willing to sacrifice their lives to advance scientific knowledge. Watching Europa Report reminded me of the trials of Ernest Shackleton and other early-20th-century polar explorers. The film tries to balance the fear and the joy of the unknown, and it largely succeeds. 
And here is the beginning of the section related to Gravity:
Europa Report largely takes place inside a spaceship. The beauty of space itself is more clearly on display in Gravity, which tells a relatively simple story. Two astronauts on a servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST)—yes, this is an alternative
universe in which astronauts still ride space shuttles to the telescope—are left on their own when debris from a Russian satellite damages the shuttle beyond repair and kills the crew members who had remained on board.
On its surface, this is a high-brow disaster film. However, director Alfonso Cuarón provides a spectacular immersive experience, with enough suspense to keep you at the edge of your seat throughout the film. The breathtaking 17-minute opening sequence (shot in a single take) warrants the full price of a 3D admission. Commenting to the New York Times about this sequence, Cuarón explained “[w]e wanted to slowly immerse audiences into first the environment, to later immerse them into the action, and the ultimate goal of this whole experiment was for the audiences to feel as if they are a third character that is floating with our other two characters in space” (2). Indeed, for most of us, this is as close as we can get to experiencing outer space. 
I did not have space to reference it, but there is another scene in Gravity which is just breathtaking. Sandra Bullock's character at one point relaxes in the confines of the space station. She is out of spacesuit but then she gets into a fetal position, and rotates because of zero gravity. The scene is gorgeous, and this is spectacular film-making. So is a scene where a tear from her eye floats in the space station. 

There is a bit more in the review about the balance between artistic freedom and scientific accuracy etc. You can read the full review here (pdf).

You should check out the website of Europa Ventures - the company that sponsored this human space mission to Europa. And by the way, you can watch this whole film via Amazon. Here is the preview of Europa Report

Europa Report from drsalmen on Vimeo.

And here is the preview of Gravity:

‘Gravity’ Trailer 2 from Daniel Kibblesmith on Vimeo.

And here is a discussion with Alfonso Cuaron about the sound of Gravity:

SoundWorks Collection: The Sound of Gravity from Michael Coleman on Vimeo.


Akbar said...

Good write up. I watched Europa Report on my way back to Australia yesterday. Overall liked the movie. Only thing what concerns me is...why should any alien life form always go after 'eating' humans when they come across one? Just a thought.
Did you hear about our KaAStrodome project in Karachi? That was my sole reason for this year's visit. Yet to update it on my website. But one of our members was just too keen to update it on his blog.

Salman Hameed said...

Akbar - this looks great, congrats! Is there a link to one of the news reports as well?

Akbar said...

We were covered by Geo News and Dunya (newspaper). It will go through editing/proofreading/etc and they will let us know when it gets published/aired.
I wasn't personally too much interested in media spotlight until the full completion of the project, which still needs some finishing work, automation etc. All this was made many times more difficult by my fathers critical injury during construction and the extremely narrow 4 weeks window while visiting Pakistan to erect the structure from scratch to a working observatory. It is now manually functional though. The KaAStrodome project for Karachi is my humble effort to work my part in improving the country's image, which, to me, is a constant battle between those who are maligning it, against those who want to change this picture. On your next visit to Karachi, you are welcome anytime to inspect the project and give your feedback for improvement which is very much needed.
This observatory is a part of a twin observatory complex. This observatory will house our 12.5 inch Newtonian, Skeye-4 that I constructed in 2011. Coming up next is the second observatory for solar studies that I hope to complete by the end of next year. Designs and resources have been worked out and team is charged to take on the task.

Akbar said...

A short video report by Geo News was aired on Tuesday 19th Nov. Here is a link to the master copy uploaded by its Geo producer Mr Kashif Saeed on his facebook page.
The observatory is still in its construction phase.

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