It’s a wonder that anyone is still interested in becoming an astronaut after the procession of cinematic calamities that have befallen space travelers over the years. Netflix seems to be pursuing a specialty in the genre, with Stowaway arriving shortly on the heels of the apocalyptic George Clooney starrer The Midnight Sky. Joe Penna’s sophomore feature clearly owes a debt to 1969’s Marooned in its depiction of a small space crew dealing with a life-threatening crisis.
Stowaway is more confined and claustrophobic than most films of its type, set entirely aboard the confines of a spaceship and featuring but four characters. That there are four rather than three proves the springboard for the tense scenario in which a crew, manning a rocket bound for Mars, discovers an interloper. He’s Michael (Shamier Anderson, Wynonna Earp, Goliath), a launch support engineer who inadvertently got trapped on the vessel just before takeoff.
Needless to say, this is an alarming development for the crew consisting of commander Marina (Toni Collette), biologist David (Daniel Dae Kim) and medical researcher Zoe (Anna Kendrick). David and Zoe are both new to space exploration, with the latter initially made giddy by the adventure and the former queasy by the loss of gravity.
Informed that it’s impossible to turn back, Michael is distraught at the idea of being separated for two years from his younger sister, as he’s her sole guardian. He eventually settles down and begins pitching in where he can, helping the crewmembers with their various duties. But it isn’t long before another problem presents itself. Michael had accidentally damaged a vital carbon dioxide scrubber; the result is that now that there’s a fourth passenger, the crew won’t have enough oxygen to survive the two-year mission.
The ensuing impassioned discussions among the crew about what to do form the heart of the screenplay, co-written by Penna and Ryan Morrison, which is heavier on philosophical debates than visceral thrills. David’s scientific background becomes evident when he makes the very reasonable argument that Michael must sacrifice himself for the sake of the others’ survival, while Zoe’s medical instincts kick in when she passionately makes the case for exploring every possible option that would keep all of them alive.
Ironically, Stowaway proves less effective in its thriller mechanics — which include the inevitable risky repair attempt outside the spaceship — than in its vivid rendering of the sheer drudgery of life aboard a spaceship via scenes of crewmembers performing various mundane tasks. At one point David and Michael have a lengthy conversation about the merits of free jazz, which is exactly the sort of thing you would expect people to discuss when they have countless hours to fill.
The film also proves compelling in such quiet moments as Michael describing the apartment fire that gave him horrific bodily scars when he was 9 years old, and Zoe recounting a character-revealing incident in which she tried to save a young boy from drowning at great personal risk. The strength of the ensemble helps give the proceedings further dramatic resonance, with the performers providing subtle emotional depths that keep us firmly invested in the characters’ plight. Kendrick, thanks to her innate likability and down-to-earth persona, proves particularly invaluable.
Director Penna, who previously demonstrated his talent for bleak terrain with his debut feature Arctic (for his sake, I hope he sets his next film on a sun-drenched Caribbean island), skillfully handles the visual challenges of the cramped setting, and the tense atmospherics are further abetted by Volker Bertelmann’s suitably ominous electronic music score.
For all its thematic heft, however, Stowaway sometimes feels too restrained for its own good. There are times during the extremely slow-paced and talky proceedings that you’ll find yourself desperately wishing for an alien to burst out of somebody’s chest.
Production companies: Augenschein Filmproduktion, RainMaker Films, Yale Productions, Black Canopy Films, MMC Movies, Phiphen Pictures, Rise Pictures, Stage 6 Films, XYZ Films
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Toni Collette, Daniel Dae Kim, Shamier Anderson
Director: Joe Penna
Screenwriters: Joe Penna, Ryan Morrison
Producers: Jonas Katzenstein, Maximilian Leo, Clay Pecorin, Ulrich Schwarz, Nick Spicer, Aram Tertzakian
Executive producers: Jordan Beckerman, Nate Bolotin, Maxime Cottray, Russell Geyser, Jordan Yale Levine, Ryan Morrison, Jane Oster, Joe Penna, Russ Posternak, Seth Posternak
Director of photography: Klemens Becker
Production designer: Marco Bittner Rosser
Editor: Ryan Morrison
Composer: Volker Bertelmann