We’ve seen it a lot in our lifetimes, but after decades of films like The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, or The Martian, studios are finding that there’s something about space movies that usually allows for filmmakers to speak more profoundly about universal truths regarding humanity. Much of the time, it is about the strength of the human spirit, and the will and determination to survive. And Netflix’s Stowaway, is no exception. However, interestingly enough, where Stowaway deviates from the formula, is that it introduces the twist of a philosophical conundrum that says more about humanity than many other films I’ve seen in years: what if literally not everyone actually can survive? What options do you have then?
Now before you say something like “Armageddon also did that,” I can assure you this is a richer, and more realistic film than Ben Affleck drilling a hole in an asteroid, for some nonsensical reason. Not knocking it! Armageddon is a glorious ridiculous classic, but this is trying for something else. Indeed, Stowaway is a realistic movie that is not afraid to pose the tough questions on the viewer. What is one life over many? What are you willing to sacrifice to ensure the survival of all? And as such, through the metaphor of something like a space movie, the film becomes extremely relevant, as it enables us to confront those same questions through the greater lens of humans in society today.
The film is about a crew of three astronauts, on a botanical mission to grow algae and plants on Mars, to see if conditions can become livable for humans; Captain Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), botanist Dr. David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim), and medical doctor, Dr. Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick). The mission is intended to be quick and small, with enough supplies to ensure the crew of three arrives safely to Mars. However, they discover an unconscious engineer, Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson) accidentally trapped in one of the upper panels of their space station. As they free Michael, they inadvertently destroy one of the machines supplying them with oxygen, and realize they only have enough air to support three people. So the crew has to work to see if they can find a way to ensure everyone survives, or decide on an alternative, unfavorable outcome for one of them.
It’s a very simple story conceptually, but in terms of the human emotional complexity behind the concept and the moral and ethical conundrums the characters are faced with, Stowaway manages to become a lot more than just your average space story about survival, ala movies like The Martian or Gravity. Because the movie poses the questions it asks, and because they’re not simple to answer, it elevates the material in many ways, because frankly, I don’t think these are questions any viewer (particularly one living in a society where people are opposed to doing something as simple as wearing a mask or staying indoors for the greater good) is equipped to answer. Throughout the film, characters are forced to make monumental decisions and sacrifices for the greater good, which forces us to asks ourselves, “would we be willing to do the same if we were in this situation?” And by virtue of that very question, Stowaway successfully is able to make you relate to its characters and root for them, and very easily immerses you in their shoes and situations. It’s sly writing on behalf of second-time director, Joe Penna, and his co-writer, Ryan Morrison, who previously collaborated on Cannes darling, Artic (their feature debut), starring Mads Mikkelson. You connect with Zoe, David, and Michael so easily and fully, and end up liking them because they embody the answers one would hope to be the morally right decisions one should make.
Furthermore, the direction is tense, and many of the scenes, as well as the underlying tension of the situation, give the film a manner of urgency that leaves you fully invested in what’s going on moment to moment. One scene in particular, a daring climb from one end of the space station to the other, had me on the edge of my seat. However, even outside of that particular action scene, the situation is so grave that even the dialogue-heavy moments held between all the film’s players remains interesting, as are their choices, thoughts, and efforts.
Naturally, without tremendous acting, the characters and their motivations and choices would be useless. Which is why Stowaway is even more fortunate to benefit from some stellar performances from Collette, Kim, Anderson, and especially Kendrick. In fact, I’d argue this may be Kendrick’s best dramatic performance since her Oscar-nominated breakout in Up in the Air. Her character, Zoe, is the heart, soul, and conscience of this movie. However, that’s not to take away from the other fantastic offerings from the ensemble. Anderson, for example, previously most well known for his run on the Syfy Channel cult series, Wynona Earp, shines in his performance as kind and tragic Michael. What makes the trio’s decisions all the more difficult is that Michael is just a decent person through and through. He tries everything he can to be of use, despite not being a trained professional astronaut. And ultimately, he’s just trying to get by supporting himself and a dependent sister back on Earth. And it’s not at all his fault that he’s there. Sure, it’s easy enough to root for a character like that, but without Anderson’s soulful performance, bringing pathos and sympathy to Michael, the audience would not be as conflicted as the characters on screen. As for Kim’s performance, he has arguably the toughest role in the film. David’s character is forced to make some of the more difficult calls, and does so because he believes he’s right and has a duty and responsibility to commit to those decisions for the greater good. On paper, it would be so easy to dislike a character like that, but Kim plays him with a multi-layered likability, showing the audience he’s tough and stoic externally, but has as strong a moral compass and conscience as everyone else. He’s a complicated character with complex feelings to convey. But nevertheless Kim pulls it off incredibly well.
The only complaints I would have about the film, which honestly didn’t really bother me but may bother others, were 1.) the pacing, and 2.) it somewhat wastes Toni Collette. Regarding the pacing, though I considered it tight and was fully invested in the conflict, there isn’t much action in a film like this, so much as there is philosophy and science. So those looking for the Armageddon factor, or the action spectacle of a film like Gravity, should know Stowaway is not that kind of film. Instead it’s a film that asks good, thought provoking questions about what we would do or should do for the collective good in the face of crisis. Therefore, audiences looking for action may be left wanting until the final act. Fortunately though, the film is just under two hours, and one would expect those with the patience to sit through an entire “Snyder’s cut” worth of film should have no problem with a movie like Stowaway (though that specific audience may be disappointed due to lack of slow motion, but again, not that kind of movie). And as far as Collette’s performance goes, she’s naturally great. But unlike most space films where Captains get more prominent roles, I expected her character, Captain Barnett to have a larger impact. Unfortunately she’s arguably the least explored of the team, and she should have been the most interesting, given she’s the most experienced, and this was meant to be her final mission. A brilliant actress like Collette should be utilized in better ways, but there unfortunately was less to her character than the rest of the ensemble.
Overall though, Stowaway is a solid, thought provoking, tense film. It may not be the most innovative space film of all time, but it’s definitely one that’s quite relevant today, and fearlessly puts its audience in the shoes of its characters by asking real and difficult questions of its characters and the audience without the easy answers. Coupled with great performances and good direction Stowaway finds itself elevated above similar films of the past few years by displaying a rich soul and a sense of humanity that will leave audiences with a profoundly deep impact.
Overall Score: B+
Stowaway is now streaming on Netflix.