‘Stowaway’ Explores Deep Space for a Wrenching Human Drama

Stowaway” is the latest entry in an emerging genre of space thrillers that put an emphasis on both simplicity in the storytelling and hyper realism in the aesthetic. The environment of the film is cold and distant, but the narrative packs a human punch in how direct its main idea is. If you have several astronauts out in space, too far from Earth, and must get rid of one for the rest of the crew to survive, what is the right choice? Director Joe Penna is making science fiction on one level, but it could be set in any genre because the implications would be the same for people lost in the woods or trapped in a fire.

Penna opens with a great, sustained shot of Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick), a medical researcher as she sits strapped to her seat on a ship blasting into space. Zoe is part of a crew that only includes her, mission commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette) and researcher David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim). Their purpose is to carry out a two year journey to Mars in order to continue efforts at setting the ground for eventual colonization. But while doing checkups on the ship, Barnett is stunned to find an unconscious man behind a vent. He is Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson), a launch crew engineer and graduate student who somehow was trapped in the vessel before takeoff. At first it seems like a shocking but adaptable situation and Michael starts assisting everyone on the ship. Then there’s a mechanical problem involving the ship’s oxygen and CO2 filters. You see, the ship was only designed to sustain its original crew. It cannot do one more. So now either the crew finds a way to get more oxygen supplies into the ship, or choose who can be sacrificed.

For Penna this is his first foray as a filmmaker into the realms of higher-budget, Netflix-funded moviemaking. But he hasn’t lost any of his identity. There is a narrative link here to his previous movie, 2018’s “Arctic,” which solely starred Mads Mikkelsen as a man alone out in the arctic wilderness attempting to survive. “Stowaway” is a survivalist film as well, but of a much different set of choices and with a more visceral urgency. The visual approach is obviously inspired by Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity,” particularly in the meticulous way in which Penna and his team re-create the very sensation of going into space, from the ferocity of launch to the way someone’s voice carries in a ship. Exterior shots of the ship, when characters have to do a spacewalk for example, feature little music and the sound design keeps the actors’ voices in the crackle of radio transmissions. Production designer Marco Bittner Rosser avoids any flashy gestures with the ship itself, keeping it just mechanized and slick enough to feel like something that could be launched today. 

By keeping the set design and digital space shots very subtle, without any “action” scenes involving meteors or space debris, Penna focuses entirely on the wrenching moral plight of the crew. The directing of the actors is key and the performances are all excellent. The cast gives the right amount of tension, suspicion and moral catastrophe to their dialogue. Because Zoe, Barnett and Kim are the original crew, carrying vital research to Mars, it would make terrible sense to ponder Michael as the one onboard that could be done away with. The cast and screenplay by Penna and Ryan Morrison both shine here. The dialogue avoids long, mundane clichés or monologues, because there’s no time for them when you may have only a few hours to live. Penna and cinematographer Klemens Becker hold certain shots on someone deep in terrible contemplation. Toni Collette carries the strain of being in charge while Shamier Anderson evokes the feeling of realizing that you’re far away from home, and are trapped in a corner where escape doesn’t seem possible. Anna Kendrick particularly stands out with a performance that is full of a chatty friendliness that is slowly submerged in the emotional turmoil of the situation. Mostly known for lovelorn dramedies, some strong dramas and TV, Kendrick here is allowed to tap into a good balance. She has the presence for what could have been a wider action movie, but it is great in exploring very complex feelings and dilemmas.

These performances help make “Stowaway” more than just another space film. They bring a human dimension that goes beyond the meticulous surfaces and details. As a visual experience it’s still an impressive piece of work, and Penna does capture some of that classic feel of adventurous suspense in moments where the crew must climb massive rigs to try and get more oxygen, or when the ship alerts that a solar storm is on the way. But we don’t necessarily yearn for those when the director builds so well on the theme of hard decisions. All the great background details, like plants grown for oxygen or ringing neon lights issuing warnings add a great environment to a drama of morals. Even if all of the dialogue about how to cut down cultivated plants meant for Mars to make the air safer gets lost in the scientific terminology, choosing between life and death is clear enough for any audience. This is a unique and original film.

Stowaway” begins streaming April 22 on Netflix.