Synopsis – A three-person crew on a mission to Mars faces an impossible choice when an unplanned passenger jeopardizes the lives of everyone on board.
My Take – Nearly every year or two, Hollywood serves us with a space survival film filled with dazzling visuals, a thumping score and a dilemma filled narrative. Now joining the already long list of such films which include Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, Ad Astra, First Man, among others is this latest Netflix original, which sees director Joe Penna, in his sophomore effort, after stranding Mads Mikkelsen in the Arctic Circle in 2017’s Artic, double up on the dreadfulness of solitude, by setting his new protagonists in outer space.
Thankfully, what immediately sets apart this film from others in the genre is the calmness with which the austere space drama proceeds, never rushing things through, and allowing the characters, despite their lack of space, to breath peacefully. Leaving the bursts of intensity to flare up only in a final act, which especially delivers hard on the visual spectacle department.
On the flip side, as much as you want to commend director Penna and co-writer Ryan Morrison for taking this unusual approach, the path they choose to go down, a slow-burn morality play centered on the ethics of self-sacrifice and the headache of executing complicated ship repairs, is also not as riveting as it should have been.
In simpler sense, it lacks the story to complement its strong cast and visual capacity.
The story follows a three member crew which includes the ship’s commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), a medical researcher Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) and biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim), who are embarking on a two-year mission to Mars, primarily to conduct experiments to see if the red planet can sustain any type of life.
However, several hours into the flight, Marina hears a noise in ceiling panel, and when she unscrews the bolts that hold it into place, out falls a deeply wounded Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson), a launch plan engineer who was most definitely not supposed to be on this flight. Not only did he get hurt and pass out while conducting final checks, but by bouncing around during takeoff, he damaged a few critical functions of the ship, including ones that involve the oxygen supply.
Once they determine that Michael is not a deliberate stowaway, the crew must figure out what to do with him, as they begin to assess with each other and Mission Control how and if the flight can continue with the extra person on board. And before long, it becomes clear that there is not enough oxygen to continue the mission with four people and no way to repair what has been broken in order to produce more.
Here, director Penna is more interested in exploring logic than he is about reaching cinematic touchstones and leaning into audience expectations. While the film keeps us guessing whether it is a searing character study or a tight, gripping thriller, it ends up landing somewhere in the middle. Minimalist in not just its visual treatment, but also with its character complexity and drama, the film is really about the tough choices that a trained space-crew has to make about their unexpected eponymous stowaway, if they have to have any chance of simply getting to Mars, forget about successfully completing their mission.
Yet, beyond a point, the gentle exposition becomes too gentle for its own good. Sure, to increase the isolation, the film also cut us off completely from the presumed panic in mission control. With the exception of the opening minutes, we are left to guess at what might be happening back on Earth, as we hear only the crew’s side of troubling conversations. This focus on the isolation of space and on the four characters in front of us takes us easily into the quickly apparent dark heart of the film that not how they’ll fix the life support, but how they’ll choose who will survive. But, the film’s main problem is its frustrating motionless screenplay.
While the storytelling has a grim logic to it, and the actors sell the stress of the wrenching decisions they have to make, but too many mishaps and incidents feel scrupulously reverse-engineered to create a surprisingly minimal amount of tension. As suspense should be rising, the film’s restraint becomes a liability.
Moreover, it refuses to move on from Adams’s unlikeliness, forcing the audience to ponder how underwhelming and, at the same time, outlandish it really is. There is no explanation on how he happened to get in a compartment that was nowhere near his post when the ship was getting ready for takeoff, nor is there a reason for his survival without an oxygen mask in the first place. One might also argue that film deliberately underwhelms for an emotional payoff at the end of the film.
The problem is that it never establishes enough of an emotional response (love or hate) for its characters or takes you on a journey that fully invests you in the story. It completely mishandles any chance of a morality play by playing it too safe. The choices the crew are faced with, at a philosophical level, seem to be impossible ones. But in a film, you almost always know how it’s going to play out. There is a certain artistic integrity in the film that I couldn’t help appreciating. Still, clocking in at 116 minutes, the film doesn’t leave you reeling with existential angst the way it would have liked to.
Thankfully, the film’s biggest asset is its only four person cast whose performances are spot on, with the interactions among them feeling genuine in terms of their knowledge, their compassion and their ability to function under impossible circumstances while making life and death decisions. Toni Collette is incredible as always, while Anna Kendrick doubles on her usual charm, playing the most root able character of the film. Daniel Dae Kim gets perhaps the most layered story-line among all, and brings earnestness to his character, while Shamier Anderson brings in the much required heartfelt performance. On the whole, ‘Stowaway’ is a semisolid sci-fi thriller led down by an inert script.
Directed – Joe Penna
Rated – R
Run Time – 116 minutes