I wrote last week about Voyagers and how movies set in space can take on themes that are uniquely human. That film does a good job tackling its ideas and it surprised me in its effectiveness. On the flip side, Netflix’s latest foray into space drama, Stowaway did the opposite for me. I was prepared to like it based on the premise and cast alone, but the movie unfortunately squanders both of those things.
The film follows three astronauts in a small spacecraft as they embark on a two-year mission to begin cultivating life on Mars. Commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette) leads the mission with biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim) and medical researcher Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) under her command. The mission is supposed to be routine (well, as routine as a trip to Mars can be) until they find they find Michael (Shamier Anderson), an engineer who was an accidental stowaway on the ship. He was knocked unconscious and was stuck inside a panel in which he accidentally destroyed the ship’s device to scrub carbon dioxide from the air. This unwanted development means there is only enough air on the ship to sustain the life of three passengers, instead of the four that are now onboard. Because of this, the original three members of the crew decide it is best to make Michael “leave the ship” one way or another.
If all that seems like a lot, that’s because it is. But there’s still so much more to this movie. At least two of the characters get good backstory and meaningful arcs and they only work because of the actors portraying them. Early in the film, it felt like Anna Kendrick’s performance was about to be a rehash of her character from Up in the Air (which I feel she’s played variations of in Pitch Perfect and A Simple Favor), but she quickly proved me wrong. Her performance is full of nuance, depth, and true emotion that help ground the movie in its sci-fi setting. And Shamier Anderson, who entered my awareness with this movie, is the film’s emotional center. He’s the fish out of water who is now on a two-year journey off Earth that he never planned to take. He’s an actor I’ll be keeping my eye on going forward. Daniel Dae Kim and Toni Collette are also very good, as usual, but they just aren’t given the same kind of showiness that their counterparts are given. It’s no fault on them, but just the way the film is structured.
This film builds tension incredibly well. The score by Volker Bertelmann creates an atmospheric and moody tone as the mystery of Michael’s presence is introduced. Once that is solved and other problems arrive, it keeps you in a headspace of dread and questions. There is also an action set piece towards the end of the film that shows director Joe Penna knows how to do space terror. In its technical aspects like tone, acting, and cinematography, the film excels. But in its story (written by Penna and Ryan Morrison) is where it falters.
I can’t tell if the filmmakers themselves know what kind of movie they want to make because it feels like it’s split in two. The first part is full of mystery, intrigue, and moral questions, while the second is space action and tension. At the end of the second act, it was apparent that there were a couple of ways it could have gone: either continue asking your questions and having the characters work through them in a true what-would-you-do type of film, or go for the action and excitement, which they did.
It almost felt as if the filmmakers were scared to really attack the questions head-on because it wouldn’t keep audiences interested. If that’s the case, it’s really too bad. At the tail end of the second act, I was riding high and really into what was happening. They were addressing conundrums such as the needs of an individual versus the needs of a group, having faith in something, and the meaning of a human life. The group’s final decision (which I won’t spoil) ultimately feels like a cop out in an attempt to sweep under the rug the fact that they even contemplated any of this. What could have been a nice, 90 minute piece about ethical questions turned out to be a bloated 116 minute movie with tension, but uninteresting tension.
Maybe I’m expecting too much out of this movie and it actually accomplished exactly what it wanted to. I just saw so much potential right on the surface which was barely even scratched. Watch this if you’re in the mood for solid intrigue and tension, but skip it if you’re interested in thinking deeper like I was. The movie just wasn’t interested in indulging that desire.