‘Stowaway’ review: Sci-fi flash balances with grounded drama in Joe Penna’s slick space thriller
No matter how successful we have been so far and how much we, as a species, continue to extend our reach further and further out beyond our planet, space travel continues to be an exercise of the extremely elite and adventurous, as venturing out into the vast depths of space is and might always be a dangerous proposition for human beings. Stowaway, a new film from writer/director Joe Penna, reminds us of how vulnerable and powerless we can truly be in space, and provides a rather stimulating philosophical proposition, giving us a movie that breaks from the familiar peril-in-space tropes while providing a thoroughly engaging sci-fi drama seemingly custom-made for a pandemic-ravaged world.
The film opens as three astronauts, played by Anna Kendrick, Toni Collette and Daniel Dae Kim, are taking off onto a two-year mission to Mars. It is the final flight for Commander Marina Barnett (Collette), who is a veteran piloting missions for Hyperion, the company whose mission this is. She is flying with two first-time space travelers, doctor Zoe Levenson (Kendrick) and scientist David Kim (Dae Kim), who have been chosen from thousands of applicants to take this flight. It feels like we’ve seen this all before, two newbies stuck inside a space ship with the grizzled old vet, on a mission for a huge, faceless corporation. It gets even more familiar-feeling when they discover a man trapped inside a compartment on the ship, unconscious and bleeding. Suddenly, all the years of watching horror movies set in space come flooding in and your head spins at the possibilities. Penna has some fun with the built-in space-movie setups that he knows his audience is expecting, as he films the whole stowaway reveal sequence with a real horror movie vibe, making full use of Collette’s vast acting skills.
But the horror elements quickly fade as the man turns out to be just an ordinary launch pad worker who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time during liftoff and got blown into the ship during the acceleration. So now everyone must contend with the fact that there is a fourth person on a ship made for three (and barely three at that), where a rescue mission or turning back are impossible propositions. But, even worse, they soon discover that, when he got trapped, he irreversibly damaged the machine that scrubs the carbon dioxide from the air inside the ship. So, not only don’t they have enough space for 4, now they don’t even have enough air.
And this is where Stowaway becomes so much more than a neat-looking sci-fi movie about flying to Mars and becomes a psychological drama that ends up playing like a philosophy lesson—Lifeboat in space. While there may not be any aliens or evil corporations (or are there?) as we’ve seen in other space movies, the danger of space itself proves to be the greatest villain, as all four characters are now trapped in the most human quandry of all: what are you willing to sacrifice for the greater good.
The screenplay, co-written by Penna and Ryan Morrison, is incredibly effective at creating mood, tension and a sense of increasing anxiety among these four characters, never going over-the-top. When the stowaway, played by Shamier Anderson, joins the group, the movie shifts into a movie of calculations, a sizing-up of options, weighing consequences and giving each character room to feel and live in their circumstance, without melodrama or cheesiness. There are so many ways this could have gone sideways, but Penna and Morrison keep on a steady path and build a film based on story and character, allowing the sizeable philosophical dilemma to do all the heavy lifting.
It most certainly helps that all four actors are incredibly strong, so strong in fact that there was an intentional choice for the audience to never hear any external voices, including those of Mission Control, who offer up their own “suggestions” for how to handle the problem. Collette, who is amazing in everything, is strong and centered, allowing the other three actors to truly shine. Dae Kim proves that he’s always been under-rated as an actor, as he shows a range and heart in the best performance of his career so far. Anderson also delivers a heartbreaking and tender performance, but it is Kendrick whose performance is the one that digs the deepest into the film’s psychological terror. Anyone who has forgotten that Kendrick is a solid dramatic actress would be well advised to see this film, as she carries her character’s panic, shame, compassion, conviction and strength from start to finish, and is the main reason this film hits as deeply as it does.
It’s not often you can find genuine human drama wrapped inside a shiny, slickly-produced, special-effects-laden sci-fi thriller, but you have it in Stowaway, a film that asks deep ethical questions while taking you on a visually stunning journey through space, a legitimately entertaining and surprisingly powerful space movie that reminds you of all the space movies you’ve seen before but ends up being wholly original.
Stowaway is now available exclusively on Netflix.