A film review by Craig J. Koban May 5, 2021

STOWAWAY jj

2021, Unrated, 116 mins.

Anna Kendrick as Zoe Levenson  /  Daniel Dae Kim as David Kim  /  Shamier Anderson as Michael Adams  /  Toni Collette as Marina Barnett

Directed by Joe Penna  /  Written by Penna and Ryan Morrison

 

 

ORIGINAL FILM

Brazilian 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. 

But...how???  

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.   

Overall, I 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 Earth. 

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. 

Everything I've relayed thus far makes it seem like I'm wholly recommending this film.  Unfortunately, I can't.  Firstly, there's one rather large elephant in the room that requires a galaxy spanning leap of faith and suspension of disbelief to buy into: It's simply not credible that a mission this vast, important, and long would ever, ever allow for any type of stowaway to purposely or accidentally make it on board.  Now, of course this is a Catch-22 problem, because if the screenplay had no stowaway in Michael then we'd have no film.  Regardless, it's a difficult premise to buy into.  Secondly and lastly, for as wonderfully understated and insular as the first hour-plus of the film was for me, Penna seems inclined for some reason to go big in the climax (which features a potentially deadly space walk and the retrieval of some vital equipment outside the ship) that seems a bit tonally disingenuous to what came before.  And Penna simply doesn't find a good ending here, especially for the fascinating and scary build-up offered in the first two thirds.  STOWAWAY is an impressively ambitious change of pace as a sophomore work for this director that I absolutely want to see more out of, but it somehow doesn't come as fully together as it wants to.  It's maybe a few rewrites away from achieving genuine genre lift-off and greatness.

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