Stowaway is now available on Netflix.
Every space narrative, by nature, is a survivalist film. When the nearest help is millions of miles away, when any number of tiny knobs can spring haywire, and only the barest of materials separates you from the vacuum of space -- the possibility of your demise looms omnipresently.
The three-person crew of Hyperion’s Mars expedition knew those risks, of course. Both the morally assured medical researcher Zoe (Anna Kendrick) and the clear-eyed biologist David (Daniel Dae Kim) spent three years training and pitching their proposed research for this scientific mission. Their two-year trip also represents the third and final journey to Mars for their experienced commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette, sporting her natural Australian accent). On the other hand, there is a person who didn’t sign up for this responsibility. Hours after launching, Marina discovers a wounded passenger hidden in a cramped compartment. No one knows how he got there. They only know he’s injured, and his presence introduces a bevy of dangerous, unforeseen variables.
Directed by Joe Penna, co-written with Ryan Morrison, following the pair’s Mads Mikkelsen-starring Arctic, Stowaway is the duo’s second pulse-pounding survivalist film. In fact, their two works share a few commonalities: They’re claustrophobic affairs; while Arctic partly takes place in a downed airplane, the Stowaway crew’s craft looks closer to a submarine in its narrow slinking hallways than a built-out second home. The inclusion of an unlikely character, usually a person who inhabits the protagonist’s chances of survival, ignites both dramas. These protagonists are ultimately forced to choose between their lives and saving a person they barely know. In Arctic, the individual is a young woman left critically injured after her helicopter crashes on the remote tundra. In Stowaway the discovery of a badly wounded Michael (Shamier Anderson), a launch pad engineer, induces a chain of cataclysmic events that put the entire crew in jeopardy.
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Stowaway is set in the not-too-distant future, a future where a Mars colony exists and trips are made semi-regularly. The agency behind this fraught mission, Hyperion, probably isn’t a government-backed organization. The ship these characters are traveling in was originally designed for two people. To accommodate a third person, engineers redesigned the craft by subtracting protective layers from the ship’s outer hull while packing the vessel with only the most necessary of supplies. The minimalism of this space vehicle translates to the modest production design wherein exposed wiring hangs from the walls, provisions are strapped in as though on a cargo plane, while the cockpit, featuring a few panels and even fewer monitors, looks closer to a stripped-down simulator than instruments needed for traveling to another planet. The specter of adding a fourth person immediately adds strain to their meager surroundings, as does the loss of their life support system, a component they damaged while trying to free Michael from a sealed compartment.
Zoe, David, and Marina work tirelessly to stretch their resources to accommodate the surprise passenger. They even come to like Michael, an amiable young man working toward a Mechanical Engineering degree while supporting his younger sister. Though the soft-spoken passenger didn’t envision himself here, now that he is, he volunteers to help in any way possible. His charitable, sincere nature makes the situation’s unavoidable truth difficult to face: With a dwindling oxygen supply, made more precarious once the crew’s proposed fixes go for naught, only three can survive while one must perish. Presumably, the one is Michael.
It’s a situation that could easily be played for high melodrama, but Penna is too clever to fall into that trap. See, you won’t find many weightless scenes in Stowaway. Penna cares little for the operatic poetry of humans floating in space. Instead, he grounds these characters; they walk about the ship seamlessly. This allows Penna to smartly use the presence of gravity itself as an element for adding greater weight to this crisis. Penna also relies on his strong cast to further the anxiousness in a way that’s not fueled by obvious dramatic choices.
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After playing the plucky a cappella leader of the Pitch Perfect franchise, Kendrick retrofits the same can-do attitude of that character to Zoe to realistic effect. Kim imbues David with a careful realist undergirding that in lesser hands would be confused with maliciousness. When David informs Michael of their inescapable circumstance, he delivers the news in an overtly calm voice. Sitting by a window with a view of space, welcoming reminders of Tony Stark in Endgame, Michael receives the soul-crushing information with an equally quiet poignancy. While her most emotional scenes arise from speaking to an unseen, inaudible Jim, located at mission control, Colette, in what amounts to a series of monologues, likewise steers away from any expected overacting.
Tantalizingly, there isn’t much space in this space film. The movie’s intensity stems from the ensuing claustrophobia. How Penna introduces space’s terrifying void into the narrative’s thrilling climax, is accomplished through a deceptively simple premise. To save Michael, Zoe and David must venture outside the craft, climb the tethers to another ship attached 450 meters away without damaging their vessel’s electronics or slipping away into space. Some parts of the tether are fully gravitized, while other sections give way to weightlessness. The VFX in Stowaway isn’t mind-blowing. They’re workmanlike and noticeable, particularly in the visually generic liftoff sequence. But the tether scene is a perfectly paced, heart-pounding piece of filmmaking holding similarities to Ad Astra, wherein the perilous openness of the cosmos, Hauschka’s unnerving score, and Morrison’s taut editing combine for frenzied fits of panic. The scene serves as a further example of the nimbleness Penna and Morrison have for these types of narratives.
Unfortunately, following the harrowing sequence, when disaster strikes again, the film’s ever-tightening spring unwillingly unwinds. See, Stowaway succeeds by stringing out the inevitable: One person must ultimately die. But once the inevitable arrives, Penna strives to mix the melancholic with the apropos, and the previously strong tension, without some final deeper meaning to tease, melts to nothingness. The final image further misses the solemn mark Penna intends to hit, driving Stowaway, in its final burn, firmly off course.
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