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Stowaway

Released 2021. Director: Joe Penna

EVERYTHING IS GOING WELL FOR A SPACE CREW OF THREE HEADING FOR MARS until they find an unexpected fourth passenger. No, not an alien, but a ground crew who has somehow been trapped on the craft. It isn’t long before crunch time when they need to face a critical decision they cannot avoid any longer. There isn’t enough oxygen for four people to last the journey. Three, yes. Not four. So, any volunteer?

Stowaway is a moral debate disguised as an adventure in a spaceship. A conflict between ethical and practical. Either they all die, or one could die to save the rest.

Bound for Mars are Marina (she’s the commander), David (he’s the botanist), Zoe (she’s the doctor) and Michael (he’s the stowaway technician).

It’s a stunning disaster for a ground crew to be trapped and carried off to space without an alarm system going crazy. And it’s a miracle he survives the lift-off with only minor injuries. Now that the accidental traveller has regained consciousness, Stowaway takes mostly a logical, sensible approach to its storytelling.

The characters are smart and rational astronauts, not a motley crew of wisecracking, trigger-happy alien-busters. The spacecraft has a pragmatic, functional design to its purpose, no half-lit long corridors or sleeping quarters with mood lighting.

Like The Martian (2015), the crew’s first response is to use science to solve their problem by creating more oxygen. They try but the plan doesn’t work, that’s when the movie comes to its third act relying on emotions to bring it to a poignant finale – but it doesn’t quite succeed.

The script sets out to score two goals at once. It is single-minded in showing us the crew’s determination to consider all available options to keep everyone alive, while telling us just enough about their characters at the same time.

Whilst this is clearly not a suspenseful action thriller about survival in outer space, there is one tense sequence when David and Zoe venture outside on a dangerous attempt to retrieve oxygen canisters. The scene is reminiscent of so many similar situations we’ve seen in countless other movies but this is worth a repeat watch. The combined effects of vertigo and of time quickly running out set against the painfully slow moves of the crew in spacesuits is superior to, say, the spacewalk scene in The Midnight Sky (2020).

The cast, comprising Toni Collette, Daniel Dae Kim, Anna Kendrick and Shamier Anderson, give a collectively tempered and subdued performance. Thankfully no one overacts even when the stakes are high, in particular Anna Kendrick who manages to suppress her usual high-energy perky persona.

Taking any emotional factors aside, the most likely answer to the thorny question of who among the four should sacrifice himself or herself for the greater good would be Michael, for the obvious reason he’s the one whose presence and survival hasn’t been factored into the mission. The other three have specific functions onboard they have been trained for. They are going to Mars to terraform the planet for the future of humanity. Michael is, well, to be totally blunt, dispensable.

But you can’t just simply let someone die, not even under such circumstances. We are humans, not monsters. To complicate matters, Michael has a younger sister at home who relies on him, them being orphans with a sad history. How could you ask Michael to die and leave his sister all alone with no family?

Right, this is where the story veers in the direction of pulling your heartstrings to appeal for sympathy, and it goes on for a bit reaching a point where Zoe steps up to take Michael’s place.

Remember when I mentioned earlier the finale doesn’t quite work? That’s because Zoe’s self-sacrifice feels so much like a decision to finish the movie on a moral high, instead of digging deeper into a difficult and ambivalent outcome. The selfless, unblemished, saintly position embodied by Zoe is an easy but unsatisfying end to her character. The doubts, second thoughts and conflicts experienced by Marina and David make their characters eminently more human and real. Does it make me sound heartless if I say I’m not so sure I’d volunteer to die for the guy who got dragged along out of sheer bad luck?

Zoe’s decision and final act leads to an ending that feels hollow, incomplete and abrupt. Sure, in any dire situation someone might stand up to sacrifice his or her own life to save another. But I expect more from a movie which sets out primarily to explore this tricky situation. The cynic in me says they should have pushed the story much further with the four succumbing to their all-too-human self-preservation survival instincts, and then given us an ending that’s worth the trouble. The ambition lurking beneath the script is carried through nicely but it’s ultimately let down by an uninspired conclusion.


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