Unrated, 116 mins.
2021, Unrated, 116 mins.
Anna Kendrick as Zoe Levenson / Daniel Dae Kim as David Kim / Shamier Anderson as Michael Adams / Toni Collette as Marina BarnettDirected by Joe Penna / Written by Penna and Ryan Morrison
director Joe Penna made a big splash with his feature film debut in 2019's
ARCTIC, which was a brutally efficient man
versus nature outdoor survival thriller that portrayed an ultimate
nightmare scenario of a lone man trying to stave off death from the
frigidly hostile Arctic Circle environments.
Not only was that film a one-man performance showcase reel for star
Mads Mikkelsen, but it also introduced us to a confident new filmmaking
talent in Penna.
He now follows up
that superlative effort with another survival tale in STOWAWAY (streaming
now on Netflix or Amazon Prime, depending on where you're located), this
time involving four characters trapped within the more claustrophobic
confines of a space vessel heading towards Mars on a landmark mission.
The premise contained within is arguably even more hellish than
that of ARCTIC: Three astronauts with only enough life support means to
make it to Mars find a stowaway and they've reached the point of no return
to Earth, meaning that they have to find some manner of breaking the
horrendous news to said stowaway that he has to be sacrificed in order to
preserve the survival of the main trio on the mission, not to mention
preserving the success of the mission itself.
STOWAWAY is undeniably chilling, and is refreshingly more about
characters, tension, and mood than VFX and spectacle as far as the sci-fi
genre goes. Its first two thirds are gripping, but overall the film
lacks a proper and satisfying follow through and hurtles towards an ending
that feels like it came from another movie altogether.
But, damn, those
first two thirds are superb, and STOWAWAY features a remarkably potent
opening sequence that packs an immersive visceral punch that's hard to
shake off. Much like he did
in ARCTIC, Penna doesn't waste time with expositional particulars and
instead thrusts us immediately into the cockpit of the aforementioned
space vessel to introduce us to the three astronauts that are about to be
taking one new giant leap for mankind towards the red planet. There's the tough minded and no-nonsense pragmatist
commander, Marina (Toni Collette), the doctor/medical researcher in Zoe
(Anna Kendrick) and biologist David (Daniel Dae Kim), who's planning on
working on an integral algae experiment while on route.
Penna (akin to what Damien Chazelle achieved the space themed FIRST
MAN) manages to portray the stresses of blasting off humans into
the cosmos: it's physically and mentally punishing.
As this team's rocket blasts off we get no exterior shots of the
ship. Instead, Penna keeps
the camera within the tight confines of the command vessel to show the
affects of the lift-off on the crew.
It's a sensationally realized opening sequence that really breathes
with a stunning verisimilitude.
Soon afterwards -
and once the ship attains some convenient artificial gravity - the three
person crew starts to dig in deep to dock with a larger craft capable of
propelling them to Mars. Once synched up and blasted off again in space, Marina, Zoe,
and David are committed for the two-year trek to come...and there's no
safely going back. It's at
this point when the crew makes a shocking discovery.
One lowly ground tech, Michael (Shamier Anderson), is found
miraculously alive (although injured) inside one of the life support
system hatches. Zoe, being
the only doctor on board and sworn to do no harm to any person, instantly
takes Michael in for some much need medical attention.
When he fully regains consciousness he predictably goes into panic
mode. After all, he wasn't
planning on spending the next two years away from Earth and one family
member than requires his constant attention.
Marina assures the traumatized Michael that his loved one will be
supported back home and that there's simply no way for the ship to turn
back. Unfortunately for all, when it's revealed that Michael
inadvertently wrecked the vessel's carbon dioxide reducing mechanism when
trapped, the crew realizes that they now don't have enough oxygen to
support four people. In
short: Michael needs to go.
One of STOWAWAY's
chief assets is in how economical its main story is, especially when it
comes to the anxiety plaguing moral dilemma that this crew now finds
themselves in. It's pretty agonizing on most levels. Initially, Marina and company try to find ways of making the
grunt working Michael useful on board to take his mind off of being away
from home for what seems like an eternity for him.
But when they find out that there's only enough life support for
the original crew this poses multiple thorny questions: Do they tell Michael?
If so, how do they tell him? What
will be the ramifications of telling him?
Will he commit himself willingly to his own demise...or resist with
force? Marina, Zoe
and David all differ greatly on how to give this poor soul the news; none
of them signed up on this mission to kill anyone (especially Zoe, whose
solemn oaths as a doctor causes some obvious conflict of interest).
Marina, on the other had, thinks of things practically: the more
days they delay in informing Michael the more potentially wasted oxygen is
used on board, jeopardizing everyone.
STOWAWAY is intriguing on the conundrum of sacrifice, survival, and
the adage of the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, but it
never makes it easy on these characters or the holds the viewers hands.
There are no good or bad people here, just honor and duty bound
ones dealt with a morbid decision to make.
appreciated how dramatically and emotionally introspective STOWAWAY was in
the manner that it honed in on the quieter and low key moments that
thoughtfully dealt with character dynamics.
That's not to say, though, that as a space voyaging sci-fi thriller
it's low on eye candy. The set/production design and effects work here are indeed
top notch, and the interior cabins of the ship have a coldness to them
that helps drum up the ever increasing sense of dread in the proceedings.
Klemens Becker's clean, crisp, and moody cinematography evokes the
crisis of conscious that plagues the crew and their mission.
But STOWAWAY is a rare breed of sci-fi thriller that's not about
fantastical imagery and action. Like
great examples of the genre, it's ideas and themes driven first and
foremost. The film also makes
for, as alluded to, both a nice companion piece as well as an antithesis
to ARCTIC; both feature doomed characters teetering towards a precipice of
having their sanity rocked while facing the ultimate survival quandary,
but STOWAWAY substitutes in the compacted confines of a space ship away
from Earth versus the vastness of a never-ending winter landscape on
The actors bring
their A-game to with these well realized characters.
Collette seems ideally cast as the stern authority figure that's
not without feeling (she's not delegated to being the one-note villain of
the piece and doesn't want to kill Michael anymore than her colleagues
do). Kendrick is equally good
as her beleaguered scientist that can't bring herself to make impossible
choices that are placed before her. It
should be noted too that the female characters here are the tougher lot,
with Kim's David having difficulties acclimating to the sensory overload
that is space travel. And
Anderson has the trickiest performance task of the lot in terms of
plausibly relaying this man's deep anguish when being informed of his
ultimate fate. It would have
been deceptively easy to make this character an unpleasantly deranged
madman to drum up some phony tension, but Penna here is wise to not let
the film devolve down such detours.