No place in outer space for an accidental passenger on ’Arctic’ director Joe Penna’s mission to Mars
Dir: Joe Penna. US. 2021. 116mins.
Arctic director Joe Penna once again tells a story of survival — albeit in a very different environment — in Stowaway, a sci-fi chamber piece about a handful of characters who must make a terrible choice in the depths of space. This thoughtful, well-acted sophomore feature stars Anna Kendrick and Toni Collette as part of a small crew heading to Mars who discover an engineer (Shamier Anderson) has accidentally come aboard for their two-year journey, severely taxing their limited oxygen supplies. But while his arrival prompts a life-or-death debate that is grist for a potentially interesting philosophical conversation, it doesn’t always make for particularly riveting storytelling.
A harrowing set-up that leaves the characters in a terrible predicament
Streaming on Netflix across much of the planet starting April 22, Penna’s small-scale tale should benefit from Kendrick and Collette’s star power. Stowaway doesn’t offer much in the way of action or spectacle – the suspense stems largely from how the characters deal with an ethical dilemma in which the crew’s fate hangs in the balance. So viewers will need to appreciate the script’s character-based drama and its what-would-you-do? scenario.
Kendrick plays Zoe, a doctor who is part of a three-person mission to Mars; she is joined by biologist David (Daniel Dae Kim) and veteran commander Marina (Collette). But just as their long trip gets underway, they are startled to find Michael (Anderson), an engineer assisting the team that prepared the ship for take-off, who was knocked unconscious and remained on the vessel after launch. But because their life-support system has been damaged, they have only enough oxygen for three passengers.
Penna demonstrated with Arctic an ability to take a familiar concept — one man’s fight to stay alive in inhospitable conditions — and bring fresh ideas and a shrewd sense of pace and tension to it. Stowaway, which like Arctic was co-written with Ryan Morrison, similarly focuses on dire circumstances, but this time the drama is built around more of a thought experiment: how do you decide which one of four people should die so the rest of the crew can live?
It is a harrowing set-up that leaves the characters in a terrible predicament — there is no way to turn the ship around, and Michael was never supposed to be part of the mission, making him the most expendable. But that realisation brings only guilt and sorrow to Zoe, David and Marina, who decide they will spend a few days trying to think of possible solutions, vowing not to tell Michael the situation until it is absolutely necessary.
Not surprisingly, Stowaway soon introduces a few twists — we learn more about Michael’s background, and one crew member decides to act without consulting the others — but what ultimately hampers the film is that, once the agonising dilemma is introduced, the script quickly becomes a standard survival-in-space saga, recalling everything from Gravity to The Midnight Sky.
The performances are nicely modulated, though, resisting the story’s inherently melodramatic qualities and instead focusing on trying to solve the problem at hand. All four crew members are smart, capable professionals, and at times Stowaway evokes The Martian in its celebration of human ingenuity, preferring sober brain power to gaudy special effects. As the picture’s emotional centre, Kendrick plays Zoe as a caring physician who simply cannot accept that Michael has to die — which puts her at odds with Marina, who doesn’t want to do the unimaginable but must think of the greater good. In films such as The Sixth Sense and Hereditary, Collette has brought intelligence and raw emotion to distinctive genre fare, and her effortless authenticity as Stowaway’s conflicted commander gives the character layers that might not be there otherwise.
But, eventually, the film succumbs to predictable narrative beats and an act of self-sacrifice that, although affecting, doesn’t feel fully earned. Whereas Arctic was elevated by Mads Mikkelsen’s sharply drawn survivor, Stowaway’s protagonists are not as memorable, diminishing the anguish surrounding how they will decide who is to perish. Volker Bertelmann’s poignant score tries its best to locate the very human story at the heart of this space odyssey. But the characters’ disposable nature works against a film that argues every life is precious.
Production companies: XYZ Films, Augenschein, Rise Pictures, Rainmaker Films
International sales: XYZ Films, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Aram Tertzakian, Nick Spicer, Jonas Katzenstein, Maximilian Leo, Ulrich Schwarz, Clay Pecorin
Screenplay: Joe Penna & Ryan Morrison
Production design: Marco Bittner Rosser
Editing: Ryan Morrison
Cinematography: Klemens Becker
Music: Volker Bertelmann
Main cast: Anna Kendrick, Daniel Dae Kim, Shamier Anderson, Toni Collette