Premise: A stowaway on a mission to Mars sets off a series of unintended consequences.
When a company like Netflix resolves to release at least one film per week in a given year, it remains harder and harder for any single film to stand out amongst the pack. For every Mank or The Irishman or Mudbound, there’s a hundred more films that serve as glorified filler material, taking up the same amount of bandwidth on the platform and competing for the same space in our ever-dwindling attention spans. Stowaway manages to hold its own in spite of all of this, and becomes a well-intentioned, character-based space drama.
Calling Stowaway a sci-fi film feels a little disingenuous. Yes, the film is set in space and involves a voyage to Mars, but the setting feels almost perfunctory: the mission at hand is more about survival than science. Director Joe Penna, whose feature debut dealt with Mads Mikkelsen stranded in the arctic, was a solid, assured tale of man versus nature. For his follow-up, he expands the cast and jettisons them into the void of space, while still grounding his characters in reality and not resulting to formulaic plot points.
The film concerns a crew of three, composed of Zoe (Anna Kendrick), David (Daniel Dae Kim), and Marina (Toni Collette) as they launch into space and dock at a small station on their way to Mars. Not long after they arrive, they discover Michael (Shamier Anderson), who somehow became inadvertently stuck onboard and fell unconscious upon the ship’s takeoff. The details of how exactly Michael ended up in space – much less, survived the launch – are strangely absent, but no matter. Anybody that’s seen Apollo 13, First Man, or any other survival film knows that an extra body means not only an extra mouth to feed, but less oxygen to go around. The remainder of the film deals with the crew’s feeble attempts at diplomatically coping with the inevitable, and the moral dilemma it poses. Though this type of survival story has largely played out before, Stowaway manages to avoid most narrative tropes: none of the characters turn against each other, and Michael isn’t revealed to have a sinister ulterior motive. And while it’s hard to create realistic set pieces within such limited confines, they’re staged and executed nicely. The script (written by Penna and Ryan Morrison) fleshes out the relationships between each crew member nicely, but leaves a frustrating amount on the table, as their backstories are barely touched upon. Does this derail the mission that Penna has set out? Not exactly, but when the film reaches its dramatic centerpiece, we’re left at arm’s reach from the characters, and the film feels like it’s missing a scene or two to really do more of the heavy lifting.
Still, Penna remains a confident voice behind the camera. A one-take tour throughout the space station upon arrival, and an up-and-down dolly shot between bunk beds shows that he knows how to make the mundane feel unique. And while the setting of space yields fantastic cinematography almost by default, several sequences are stunningly shot and composed. Penna has a good sense of space (pun intended) overall, making the station feel claustrophobic, and inviting, whenever it needs to be. Also helping to sell the isolation is the trimmed-down cast; the four aforementioned actors are the only ones we ever see or hear from, as any communications with Earth are muddled and unintelligible, like the adults from the Peanuts cartoons filtered through a radio.
The performances are decent all around, though maybe not the best offering of each actor’s careers. Anderson in particular manages to ably hold his own against a more experienced, high-profile cast. Over the course of only two films, Penna has proven that he can not only handle A-list talent but can write and direct entertaining tales of survival without resorting to contrivances or gimmicks. Does Stowaway reinvent the wheel when it comes to space-capsule dramas? Maybe not, but where it lacks in inventiveness, the film makes up for it in a grounded, character-based story, stunning visuals, and exciting set pieces. Only time will tell if the film gets lost in the void of Netflix’s ever-growing library, but Penna makes the case for it to stand its ground.
Stowaway premieres on Netflix on Friday, April 23.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com and a recurring co-host on The Obsessive Viewer Podcast, and a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.