I have no idea if the latest film from director/co-writer Joe Penna (Arctic) was made during the pandemic, but it sure feel like it could have been, albeit in a way that doesn’t scream that it was. With just four cast members, Stowaway plays out like a chamber play about ethics and human dignity and whether life matters more than mission, all in a science-fiction framework. The opening of the movie is simply a spacecraft launch, shown from the cockpit of a ship with three crew members—ship commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim), and medical researcher Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick). We only see what they see: a lot of shaking, noise, an impossible control panel, the occasional booster rocket falling off, and ultimately, a fantastic view of the earth.
The crew is embarking on a two-year mission to Mars, primarily to conduct experiments to see if the red planet can sustain any type of life. And while we never learn any details about the research, a great deal of it seems to involve planet life. There are small signs that there were some miscalculations about the ship’s weight, which impacts fuel use and trajectory, but these are easily corrected issues. Several hours into the flight, Marina hears a noise in a 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. Being very mission-driven, Marina makes the tough call that Michael must die and would prefer he take his own life, while Zoe is more of a humanist and wants to give him as much time to live as she can, regardless of how much oxygen it depletes.
Although it’s never specifically mentioned, the fact that Michael is a Black man feels significant—he’s seen as the sacrificial lamb who needs to step aside to allow others to live. But when circumstances change once again, and now there is only enough oxygen for two crew members, only then do they start coming up with radical ideas that will ultimately save everyone. The solution involves one of the most complicated, dangerous and tension-filled spacewalk sequences I’ve ever seen, and naturally things don’t go exactly according to plan.
One of the most refreshing elements of Stowaway is that there are no bad guys. All four of these people are crew members you would be lucky to be stuck with and they are attempting to solve critical problems. They are all kind and smart and capable, and even when they argue, they do so reasonably. So where does the drama come from? Small moments where the personalities don’t line up exactly. Marina has been to space before, so she knows the importance of sticking to the plan in order to accomplish agreed-upon goals. Zoe is an idealist, but more importantly, she’s a doctor, so the idea of selecting anyone to die for the good of the mission would never seem logical to her. Meanwhile, David gets emotional at the idea of throwing away his research on any plan that may not work. Perhaps most unexpected is Michael’s response to being told he must die: he’s agreeable because he knows he wasn’t chosen to be there and understands that his being there endangers everyone, even without everything going wrong the way it does. And the fact that all four characters are so likable and sensible makes certain moments all the more difficult.
As with his previous film, Arctic, director Penna (who co-wrote Stowaway with Ryan Morrison) excels in telling stories of isolation. The characters actually talk to each other, and while they (and we) get to know about Michael and his life on earth, they also reveal a great deal about themselves to him and us. I’m guessing every audience member will have a favorite crew member and will have their own ideas about what the best plan of action should be, depending on personality type. And those favorites may shift over the course of the film, as they are meant to do. Stowaway’s ending does not play out the way I thought it would (although I’m not sure I could articulate exactly how I thought it would wrap things up).
The four performances are spot-on, with the interactions among the four leads feeling genuine in terms of their knowledge, their compassion and their ability to function under impossible circumstances while making life and death decisions. This is a character drama that just happens to be set in space, and it’s a perfect example of the places science fiction can take us that don’t involve aliens, space battles or galactic empires.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
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