Film Review – Stowaway
Stowaway (2021) presents a moral dilemma wrapped up in a sci-fi setting. It’s not interested in alien invasions, space adventures, or the overwhelming mysteries of the galaxy. Instead, it’s story is far more grounded – for lack of a better term. A small group of astronauts are given an impossible choice, and how each of them handles that decision carries the brunt of the narrative. But while the questions raised are heavy ones, ripe for dramatic tension, this is a surprisingly mundane affair. The gradual pacing and lack of urgency makes the overall piece feel slight despite it being a battle of life and death.
This is the second film in a row that director Joe Penna explored human behavior under the stress of survival. Arctic (2018) had Mads Mikkelsen stranded in the middle the Arctic, choosing between staying in his makeshift camp or venturing out into the frozen tundra in hopes of finding civilization. Despite Mikkelsen being the only character we interact with for the vast majority of the runtime, we stayed glued into his predicament. Stowaway operates in much of the same fashion but not as effectively. Instead of a snow-filled landscape we’re trapped inside the tight quarters of a spaceship.
We meet a three person crew at the beginning of a two-year mission to Mars. The purpose: to help find ways for people to survive on the planet. For commander Marina (Toni Collette), this is her third and final voyage. David (Daniel Dae Kim) is a biologist sent to determine if algae can help sustain life there, and Zoe (Anna Kendrick) is the resident doctor and health researcher. The writing (Penna, Ryan Morrison) adds small character traits that allows the characters to feel more like everyday people. After takeoff, David experiences motion sickness and vomits. When they finally enter into space, Zoe hops up and down with excitement like a little kid.
Penna’s direction and Klemens Becker’s cinematography capture much of the visuals from inside of the spaceship. The opening scene, where our characters are blasted off into space, is shot from entirely inside the cockpit. There is a good sense of how big and dangerous this sequence is. The camera shaking combined with the sound editing creates a strong overall effect. There have been dozens (if not hundreds) of sci-fi flicks where we watch rockets get propelled up into the sky. Here, all we need is to look out of the window and see the outside turn from blue to black. Once the astronauts are in cruise control and artificial gravity is initiated, we get a nice overall view of the facilities. This is not the kind of futuristic ship with fancy gadgets all around, it has realistic texture. The set design resembles the inside of the actual International Space Station, but without the characters floating around the corridors.
At first, everything appears to be going according to plan, until a fourth character is discovered on board. Michael (Shamier Anderson) was an engineer helping with the launch who somehow got knocked out and trapped in the ship’s hull. When he wakes up and realizes he is no longer on Earth, he understandably panics. His situation becomes even more tragic when we learn that he left his younger sister at home, of whom he is her only living relative and sole guardian. But his presence on the ship causes a major problem. When Michael was discovered – crashing through a panel – he accidentally destroyed the mechanism that recycles the oxygen. With the ship’s resources already stretched to the limit and not enough fuel to abort, the crew faces the reality that they will not survive the mission with four people.
This dilemma operates as the main driving force of the story, but it also acts as its biggest weakness. It is a good set up for a character study, but the writing and direction doesn’t take advantage of that opportunity. Once we understand the stakes, the forward momentum abruptly halts. Instead of ramping up the moral implications, the conflict between the four characters shifts to neutral. The crisis is clear: the four of them cannot survive together, does one of them have to go? How can they possibly make that choice? On paper, this sounds like a good idea for drama, but in execution is not nearly as compelling as it sounds. Perhaps this is due to us not getting a better understanding of the other characters beyond surface level personalities, with Kendrick’s Zoe as the steadfast optimist. She firmly believes there has to be way for all of them to survive, regardless of how limited their resources are.
Instead of a battle of wills, Stowaway turns into a procedural, featuring a high-risk space walk in the hopes of pulling off a miracle. As good as the film looks and as committed as the performances are, the low key tone and slow burn style strips away the pressure of the situation. I appreciate Penna’s intention to tell a human story in a sci-fi realm, I just wish I was more invested in it.