THE STORY – A three-person crew on a mission to Mars faces an impossible choice when an unplanned passenger jeopardizes the lives of everyone on board.
THE CAST – Anna Kendrick, Toni Collette, Shamier Anderson & Daniel Dae Kim
THE TEAM – Joe Penna (Director/Writer) & Ryan Morrison (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 116 Minutes
By Danilo Castro
“Stowaway” is a refreshingly small-scale entry into the science fiction genre. It places emphasis on the internal feelings of its characters rather than the external threat of wormholes or extra-terrestrials. It follows in the tradition of tense, minimal space dramas like “Moon” (2009) and “Gravity” (2013), and it boasts an ensemble cast of reliable supporting players like Toni Collette and Daniel Dae Kim. Does it deliver on its intimate aspirations? Let’s blast off into the atmosphere and find out.
The premise is simple but effective. A team of astronauts embarks on a two-year mission to colonize and gather research on Mars. Marina Barnett (Collette) is the experienced commander, David Kim (Kim) is the occasionally queasy biologist, and Zoe Levinson (Anna Kendrick) is the team’s perky medical researcher. However, their relatively low-risk mission gets thrown into a tailspin when they discover a wounded man trapped in the bowels of the ship. Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson) was an engineer who lost consciousness before takeoff, and his presence damages the ship and compromises the leftover oxygen for the team. The quartet is then forced to scramble for a fix to their seemingly doomed situation.
“Stowaway” starts off like most science fiction yarns, with banter between crew members and a sense of dread for what’s coming. It’s a credit to director/co-writer Joe Penna then that the film can avoid predictable story beats. In most other films, Michael would have been a villain who tries to save his own neck, but here, he’s a decent man who feels genuine regret for the issues he poses. One of the most affecting scenes deals with the discovery that the ship cannot support four people. Rather than succumb to a melodramatic speech or a tearful shouting match, the film allows Michael to sit in silence and contemplate whether or not to sacrifice his life. Penna’s choices repeatedly appear on the side of subtle, allowing the viewer to intuit rather than be told what to feel. This approach powers the film’s most heartfelt moments.
Unfortunately, the subtle approach of “Stowaway” also leads to stretches of time that feel inconsequential. The core trio decides not to tell Michael about the oxygen problem at first, but David tells him minutes later, which brings into question why the previous scene was included at all. Zoe and Michael share a few tender moments early on, though the longer the film progresses, the less personable they appear to be. It’s a realistic approach, perhaps, but given that Zoe is the driving force behind keeping him alive, it feels like a missed opportunity.
The performances are strong when they’re given screen time. Colette and Kim provide shades of uncertainty and frustration as things spin out of control, but neither is given a chance to develop their characters further. Kim is most affected by the narrative choices, given that his character was the most reluctant to embrace Michael’s presence and the one to hint at suicide as a solution. One can’t help but wish this kernel of tension would have been developed into something larger. Kendrick and Anderson are appealing in their earnest desperation, but none of the performances are embellished enough to register as exceptional. They are merely good.
Penna and cinematographer Klemens Becker deliver some imaginative shots outside of the ship. The design of the cylindrical tow cables that Zoe has to scale is one of the more memorable in recent science fiction. Nothing here looks cheap, and the emotional stakes are boosted dramatically by the tangible threat of death. Once again, though, the virtues of the film hit a snag. A plan to siphon oxygen for Michael gets interrupted by a natural space phenomenon, and it’s hard to ignore the level of contrivance at play here. Based on their work in the 2018 survival drama “Arctic,” Penna and co-writer Ryan Morrison should have been able to concoct a setback that doesn’t feel like a deus ex machina.
“Stowaway” is a film that boasts slightly more virtues than issues. The cast is impressive, the restraint of the premise is admirable, and the ending, which I won’t spoil here, is legitimately moving. I just wish the film had been able to develop its characters further and deliver on narrative beats that were set up during the first act. As it stands, “Stowaway” is an entertaining, albeit unremarkable ride.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Penna’s subtle approach to science fiction is refreshing, particularly when it comes to the motives and decisions of the main characters. Daniel Dae Kim shines as a conflicted biologist.
THE BAD – The film struggles to develop its characters internally, and the emphasis on subtlety sometimes leads to stretches of tensionless screen time.
THE OSCARS – None