Last year Netflix ventured into space with the George Clooney directed “The Midnight Sky”. It was a low-key, yet soulful and penetrating slice of science-fiction that deserved more buzz than it received. The streaming giant is back among the stars with their new film “Stowaway”, a similarly understated sci-fi drama that probes the human experience as much as it does the vast wonder of deep space. It may not dive as deep into its central premise as it could have, but it’s both thoughtful and immersive which is exactly what I was hoping for.
“Stowaway” is the sophomore effort from director Joe Penna. His previous film was 2018’s “Arctic”, a terrific Mads Mikkelsen survival thriller that introduced Penna as a filmmaker of remarkable restraint and focus. “Stowaway” sees him pulling out those same traits in telling yet another survival story although one with a few more characters and more moving parts.
The story (written by Penna and Ryan Morrison) begins with a space capsule launching from earth, its three-person crew set for a two year research mission to Mars. Space junkies should love the exhilarating opening sequence which gives a cockpit view of the craft as it leaves the atmosphere and then docks with their main ship high above the planet. Once connected, Dr. Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick), team biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim), and ship commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette) begin settling in for their long journey.
While it may not play well with everyone, one of my favorite things about “Stowaway” is the way it shows the crew’s meticulous operation of the ship. Penna’s observant camera allows us to watch the crew members work rather than listen to long drawn-out scientific explanations for everything they do. Of course we do get conversations about magnetic radiation proofing and the CDRA, but they’re very organic. We don’t always understand what they’re doing or saying, but the characters know and we believe them. And don’t worry, it’s never monotonous, just authentic.
A few hours into the mission while running a routine systems check, Marina makes an alarming discovery. She finds a man (Shamier Anderson), wounded and unconscious in a large overhead compartment. He wakes up in a panic, realizing he’s in space and with no recollection of how he ended up onboard. Once the crew settles him down they learn his name is Michael, a launch support engineer with the ground team. As Marina works to confirm his identity with Mission Control, Zoe and David show Michael around the ship and try to help him feel like a part of the crew.
And then things start to get hairy. Marina discovers that the ship’s life support system was critically damaged during Michael’s incident. Even worse, calculations show there’s only enough oxygen for three people to make the trip to Mars. So the original trio are faced with a unenviable dilemma. Do they remove the new and virtually untrained Michael from the ship in order to save themselves and the mission? And if they do, could the guilt-burdened crew ever safely complete their mission? The moral conundrum infuses the story with a psychological tension that could have been explored deeper but that is fascinating nonetheless.
The cast of four turn in solid performances and serve up some interesting characters even though they aren’t given much in terms of backstory. Zoe is an energetic young doctor who sees the mission as a chance to give her life meaning. David is a dedicated scientist with a wife back home who loves Harvard and experimental jazz. Marina is a seasoned space traveler with two missions under her belt and this one set to be her last. And of course Michael is a bit of a mystery by design but we do learn he has a sister back on earth who he looks after. Those handful of facts are pretty much all we get. It’s not a huge issue but it softens our emotional attachment to the crew.
“Stowaway” doesn’t break any new ground nor does it move the genre into any new directions. But it is an entertaining and assured science-fiction effort from a talented and tightly-focused filmmaker. It also looks great, from its terrific set design full of cool and highly-detailed ship interiors to the obligatory yet harrowing spacewalk sequence. And while they may lack some depth, Penna doesn’t allow his characters to turn into stale predictable types. They’re just four people using their know-how to navigate a hopeless situation while fighting to keep their moral integrity in tact. “Stowaway” premieres today (April 22nd) on Netflix.
VERDICT – 4 STARS