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Movie Review – Stowaway (2021)

Principal Cast : Anna Kendrick, Daniel Dae Kim, Shamier Anderson, Toni Collette.
Synopsis: A three-person crew on a mission to Mars faces an impossible choice when an unplanned passenger jeopardizes the lives of everyone on board.

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The ultimate moral dilemma is put to the test in this latest Netflix offering from director Brazilian-born director Joe Penna (Arctic), as he shoots four people into space with only enough oxygen for three. Stowaway quietly goes about its sci-fi business well, with a measured tone and even pacing, enabled by four compelling central performances from the rock-solid cast – particularly Toni Collette and Anna Kendrick – leaving the viewer with an embittering, water-cooler-discussion worthy sci-fi entry that lingers in the consciousness well after the closing credits.

The three-person crew of a two-year mission to Mars blast off from the launch pad to dock with the orbiting space station designed to take them on their journey. They are Captain Marina Barnett (Toni Collette – The Sixth Sense), medical researcher Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick – Pitch Perfect) and botanical expert David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim – Hawaii Five-O, Raya & The Last Dragon), who are following a long succession if interplanetary missions to the red planet for potential human habitation. Not long after blast off, well past the point of no return, they discover a fourth person aboard, Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson – Destroyer), unconscious inside a damaged section of the launch vehicle. Upon regaining his senses, a shocked Adams learns that his fate is to be away from his sister for the length of the mission; a mission now in jeopardy thanks to a lack of oxygen. The crew realise that they do not have enough life support for four people to survive the trip to Mars, only three. Facing suffocation, and mission failure, the four ruminate on what they ought to do to survive the perilous journey.

Mixing elements of Ridley Scott’s The Martian, more than a hearty nod to Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, and the awkwardly off-kilter spaceship sequences in George Clooney’s recent The Midnight Sky, Penna’s Stowaway is a far more contemplative examination than its marketing had led me to believe it would be. Penna, who co-wrote the script with Ryan Morrison, offers us a glimpse into both the fragility and raw, primal terror of space travel and the unfiltered weakness of the human condition – we can’t breathe in a vacuum, huh – with startling resonance and perspective. The premise is simplicity itself, a factor governing just how quickly the story progresses with its ticking-clock underpinning as our small cast have to wrestle with some of life’s most enormous ideas. If you had to choose who dies, who do you choose? The story doesn’t really endeavour to answer the question for us in terms of overall subtext, but rather force us to examine our own sense of right, wrong and how we relate to those around us.

Stowaway gives us four pretty distinct characters within its comparatively short running time, fleshing them out well enough to make things count enough to warrant tension when their lives are in peril. Kendrick’s Zoe and Anderson’s titular (if accidental) stowaway, Michael Adams, come in for the most work, inhabiting characters of depth and emotional connection that makes the endgame decision of the film one that will shatter the more introspective viewer. Toni Collette, as is her wont, delivers yet another shattering performance as the ships commander torn between mission and friendship, an aching captaincy that smacks of the the best Kobayashi Maru-themed episodes of Star Trek; sometimes there are no good options. Daniel Dae Kim, whose work I’m largely unfamiliar with outside of Hawaii Five-O advertising, plays his part with equal measured frustration – due to the interlopers intrusion, his research is destroyed and mitigated entirely by the need for simple survival, and his anger towards Adams is pertinent and understandable, even if his resolve to do what he thinks is right feels uncomfortable.

There are more than a few who will criticize Stowaway for being too slow, and there is an argument to make that the film’s pace is quite detrimental to the urgency of the plot. I think Penna balances dramatic urgency and his steady pace well, allowing the characters to tell the story rather than the mechanics of filmmaking to do it for them. There are few rapid cuts here, and even fewer action sequences – heck, even the dramatic clamber of two characters from one end of the space station to an outer pod attacked by two thick metal cables (because gravity, y’all) is free of cinematic embellishment  – and folks expecting some explosive survivalist thriller will feel short-changed by Stowaway’s intrinsic quietude. Instead, the tension is enhanced by conversation, by transplanting the characters emotions onto our own, which is a skill few modern filmmakers seem to possess. From the moment the crew arrive in orbit, we no longer hear the conversations with ground control – well, we do, but we only hear the orbiting crew’s side of things, amping up their (and our) sense of isolation moreso than the continued vista of a diminishing planet Earth in the rear-view mirror – which is quite a cool conceit that’s different from other entries in this genre. In doing this, Penna forces us to fill in the blanks ourselves, makes us work for the connection between cast and audience, and it’s an effective technique to deploy.

Stowaway is a film of quiet menace and rising terror through a filter of calm, well written human experience. It’s a truly ghastly situation, what these people face, and it is the exact kind of desperate intellectual torture that many philosophy majors have dreamed of tacking. Joe Penna’s direction is compelling and measured without drawing attention to itself, lacking in ostentation and leaving the heavy lifting to the actors themselves. Stowaway is a thinking-person’s action film, where words and situational distress encumber the viewer to examine their own motivations and rationale for thinking the way they do. Highly recommended.

One thought on “Movie Review – Stowaway (2021)

  1. Nice write up, Rodney. I can appreciate your viewpoint, but I’m one of those who did find it quite slow. I actually found it very tame and predictable as well. If it had just pushed some of the elements that bit more – including making at least one of the characters unlikeable instead of all being super-impressive and wholesome – I would have found it more engaging.

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