Stowaway (streaming on Netflix) belongs in the subcategory of “realistic” space movies (joining stuff like Gravity or The Martian). There are no aliens or saboteurs or bizarre findings on strange planets. It is the story of a group of professionals attempting to do a job that becomes complicated by a situation they couldn’t possibly have anticipated and now they have to use reason to figure out how to survive. The personal drama is lacking, leading to a very slow pace; however, the visuals are suitably beautiful and there are genuine moments of captivating suspense. Once the plot pieces are in place, pretty much everything feels believable.
The three crew members of a planned two-year mission to Mars begin their journey when they discover a fourth crew member who inadvertently stowed away while preparing their ship for launch. It’s too late to turn around, so now they must problem-solve how to keep four people alive in a ship that was only designed to support three.
Stowaway’s biggest flaw is how thinly drawn the characters are. Though the cast gets a surprising amount of mileage out of them just by leaning into the obvious emotions in their individual outlines.
Toni Collette is experienced astronaut Marina, the leader of the mission. She is calm, focused and worried about completing the mission safely. Daniel Dae Kim is David, the botanist. He is passionate when it comes to his work, but has a wife at home that he already misses. Anna Kendrick is Zoe, the medic. She brings a sense of humanity and wonder to the team by being more concerned about the people than the mission and by being in awe of where they are. Then there is Shamier Anderson as Michael, who got hurt and passed out in the ship pre-launch. Despite having a younger sister that he takes care of, his initial panic is quickly replaced by an excitement for what he now gets to be a part of.
All four of them bring more to the characters than would otherwise have been there. This is not a story of clashing attitudes or personal drama. It is about intelligent people looking at their situation and figuring out what they have to do to survive. After all, their oxygen supply and fuel were calculated for three (presumably, that also applies to their food, but that is never brought up). Does that mean one of them needs to sacrifice themselves for the greater good? If so, should that one be Michael, since the rest have trained for this? Or can they work out a solution that will get them all to Mars?
The screenplay (by Ryan Morrison and director Joe Penna) doesn’t overdo it with the fraught conversations about what to do next, but those are basically the only times the characters get to be more than their titles (Captain, Medic, Botanist, Stowaway). The thematic focus is always on survival. Yet the aspect that really captured my attention was the visual juxtaposition between their isolation in this spaceship and the unforgiving vastness surrounding them. That essentially works as its own plot under the surface: what these people must be feeling and how that brings them to their decisions. That is where most of the suspense resided for me, even if a lot of it is subtext.
With the exception of the climax, which is quite tense, I can see how this could be boring for some viewers. If you are not interested in watching four people float through space while quietly trying to find a way to stay alive, this is probably not a movie for you. But, if you enjoy true sci-fi, based more on ideas and logic than action and thrills, Stowaway is worth the trip.
3½ out of 5
Anna Kendrick as Zoe Levenson
Toni Collette as Marina Barnett
Daniel Dae Kim as David Kim
Shamier Anderson as Michael Adams
Directed by Joe Penna
Written by Joe Penna and Ryan Morrison