The vastness of space is both wondrous and horrifying. It’s amazing to explore the endless list of what surrounds the planet, but shocking to learn how those surroundings are all-consuming nothing . Walking through zero gravity looks cool, but remarkably less-so when you realize how no gravity means no control. Space is as scary as it is special, which is why it’s been such a constant setting for science-fiction movies. For every laser gun fired, spaceship going at lightspeed, or alien monster birthed, there have also been movies that tackle isolation, fear, morality and the human condition. Taking the imagination and wonder of outer space and turning it into something intimidating is a bold move for any filmmaker, but it’s a very thin line to walk across successfully, one that Stowaway, the latest film at Netflix, tries to accomplish.
The set up for the story is rock solid. A private company is sending a three-person team on a two-year mission to start a colony on Mars. There’s team commander Marina (Toni Collette), medical professional Zoe (Anna Kendrick) and botanist David (Daniel Dae Kim) who are all feeling the weight of their mission but excited to take this great leap for mankind. Then a problem literally drops-in; Michael (Shamier Anderson), an engineer for the company who was working on the team’s space station before takeoff when he suffered an injury and passed out while still on board. Michael is desperate to get back to Earth while the team is adjusting to having an unexpected fourth member on board. Not only that, but it turns out the ship doesn’t have enough oxygen to support the now four-person team all the way to Mars. Now the team has to decide what survives: Michael or their mission.
This is not the first time co-writer/director Joe Penna has told a story of survival in a desolate location, having made the frigid drama Arctic two years ago. With its high-tech implications and likely pricier setup, Stowaway is a more of a challenge for Penna and its one that he frequently rises to. He sets the mood for most scenes with little exposition and good visual storytelling, whether it involves showing the restricted set of the space station or the gravity (no pun intended) of Michael’s situation when he first wakes up from his injury. He manages to humanize his small group of characters, all brilliant professionals in their own rights while being both logical and humane to Michael. He’s also good at emphasizing the tense atmosphere of problem-solving in space, especially in the climactic space walk along the station.
It’s just a shame that Penna and co-writer Ryan Morrison crafted the story from territory mined by the likes of Apollo 13, Armageddon, Gravity and Ad Astra, which all harnessed drama from the cold depths of space. In fact, Stowaway is basically an inverse of Ridley Scott’s 2015 hit The Martian where instead of a man in the dire circumstances of being marooned on Mars, it’s a team on a mission to Mars stuck with a man making their situation dire. It also doesn’t have the energy that The Martian had in seeing botanist Mark Watney progress in his own survival and the NASA team figuring out how to save him. Instead, it’s a visually flat and progressively dour affair only helped by the commitment of the actors and the lush score from Oscar nominee Volker Bertelmann (Lion, The Old Guard, Ammonite). And while the movie has a solid pace at 116-minutes long, the movie seems to just stop after its rather moving climax without a proper conclusion. It’s as if Penna just ran out of time (or money) to film the movie’s last ten minutes.
None of the shortcomings—time-wise or otherwise—of Stowaway fall on its cast. The four actors here all carry the dramatic weight of the movie effectively and in different ways. Collette bears the burden of being in-charge of a situation she has no control over and makes the audience feel for her having no safe solutions to the problems at hand. Kim is more reserved but seething with anger and frustration that his life’s work is being sacrificed for some unforeseen complication. Even Anderson, being the wild card of this whole story, is never over-emphasized or given some kind of dramatic twist in his character development. He plays being in the wrong place at the wrong time with patience and a perfect reaction to how dire his situation is. The real surprise here though is Kendrick, mostly known for comedies or being the comedic foil in dramas (see her Oscar-nominated performance in Up in the Air), whose character is trying desperately to save Michael’s life out of basic human decency and a prior experience. Kendrick isn’t showy in her performance, getting the frantic struggle of her character across in focused bursts of stress and heartache. She’s the conscience of the movie and seeing her wither away the worse the situation gets is heartbreaking.
Though slightly flawed and unoriginal, there’s still a compelling story in Stowaway that Penna and co. pull off. His prior methods of survival epics are shrunk down with greater intimacy here, making for tense human drama and an engaging ticking-clock element as the team scrambles to save their own lives. In a more positive comparison to The Martian, it’s also impressive that Penna managed to keep Stowaway engaging without the scope and star-power Scott’s blockbuster had. In this new era of introspective and character-driven sci-fi thrillers, it’s comforting to know that a $100-million budget and lasers aren’t needed to make something memorable in outer space.
Stowaway is now streaming on Netflix.