Beyond lost in space
In the end, Stowaway is just another run-of-the-mill science fiction flick
Back in 1890, Belfast novelist Robert Cromie wrote A Plunge Into Space, a novel in which a spacecraft suffers an air shortage due to the presence of a stowaway. The crew realizes that someone must die, that the rest may live.
The concept was revisited in the more famous 1954 short story The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin. That version became the basis of a 2014 short film The Stowaway, which you can find on Youtube.
Which brings us to Stowaway, a second feature from director Joe Penna, co-written with Ryan Morrison. The two of them also worked together on Penna's first film, 2018's Arctic, a beautiful, spare story about a man stranded in the High North after a plane crash. It stars Mads Mikkelsen, whose face in the movie looks the way a glacier would if it could emote.
Penna planned to set Arctic (presumably under a different title) on Mars, but the release of 2015's The Martian convinced him to move the drama closer to home.
But he's back in the void in Stowaway, which opens with the launch of a crew of three (Toni Collette, Anna Kendrick and Daniel Dae Kim) into Earth orbit. From there they transfer to a Mars cycler, a hypothetical ship — proposed by no less a space luminary than Buzz Aldrin — that makes a continuous loop between Earth and Mars, allowing astronauts to hop on and off as though taking a bus tour of the inner solar system.
There's a lot of good science underpinning Stowaway's story. Which is why I cringed so thoroughly at a mission-control operative identified in the opening scene not like a canine “Fie-dough” (FIDO stands for flight dynamics officer) but “Feedough.”
What's next? Gigahertz with a soft G? And why is Kendrick wearing so much makeup? I understand you might want to look good for transmartian injection. But this is what the folks at NASA call ELG, or Excess Lip Gloss.
Anyway, the gaffs soon fall away and the crew settles down for a months-long journey to Mars, with artificial gravity provided by having two parts of the ship tethered together and spinning around a point between them.
Again, solid science. So you'll need a slight suspension of disbelief to buy that a technician (Shamier Anderson) somehow wound up aboard the craft with no one back on Earth noticing before the launch. At first, his presence is a minor inconvenience. But when it's discovered that the oxygen recyclers are on the fritz, the true problem becomes apparent.
Stowaway makes good use of its cramped setting and what I presume was a limited budget, and there's a great scene late in the film that involves some nail-biting rappelling in space. But the middle portion of the film feels quite slack, and the overall pacing a little slow.
Even worse, character development is skimpy, which is almost unforgivable when your entire cast consists of just four people. We learn that the stowaway has a beloved sister at home, and that the botanist (Kim) is married. But there's not much more said about either of them, and even less for the commander (Colette) and ship's doctor (Kendrick).
We are living through real world circumstances where questions of resource management — health care, vaccines etc. — are front-page news every day. Stowaway (which was, to be fair, written and filmed before the pandemic) does little to grapple with the complex life-or-death calculations that people are forced to make when it seems that someone is going to perish, and the question becomes not Why but Who?
What could have been an exciting application of the philosophical notion of the Trolley Problem — in space! — becomes just another science-fiction thriller, with emotion taking a back seat to spectacle — a cold equation indeed.
I'd recommend checking out the director's Arctic, available on Netflix, which cheekily classifies it as a hidden gem. Consider it uncovered.