Review: Out of This World 'Stowaway' Puts Humanity at the Center
by Zofia Wijaszka
April 22, 2021
Imagine suddenly waking up disoriented in an unfamiliar place. As you walk through the narrow, round tunnel hallway, you reach the window and look out to see space – vast, uncharted blackness with millions of stars. Suddenly, you spot the Earth, your home. That's where you're supposed to be and where your family is. Soon you learn that you're now on a two-year mission to Mars, and you're not coming back any earlier than that. That's the situation that Michael (played by Shamier Anderson) finds himself in at the start of this film. In the Netflix Original Stowaway, directed by filmmaker Joe Penna (of Arctic previously), the characters must fight to survive their voyage in space while struggling with existential questions throughout.
Penna's sci-fi drama has a memorable opening sequence. It is solely concerned with the launch procedure. Commander Marina Barnett (Toni Colette) communicates with Jim, a Hyperion team member down on Earth, to ensure the launch goes smoothly and safely. There is a lot of shaking, a brief moment of fear mixed with excitement, then the disappearance of gravity quickly astounds those onboard the spaceship. Joining Commander Barnet on a two-year manned mission to Mars is Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick), a doctor, and also David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim), a biologist.
When the crew members realize they have an unexpected traveler onboard, the excitement transforms into something entirely different. Michael, the engineer, survives the launch to space, despite being confined in a small pad. The man is discovered unconscious, his harness wrapped around a pipe connected to the CDRA (Carbon Dioxide Removal Assembly). With CDRA completely inoperable, the crew only has enough air for three people. While they must now begin a race against the clock, existential questions and philosophical polemics boggle the minds of those on board as well as those watching.
Stowaway should charm most viewers with many distinct aspects; one of them is its star-studded cast. While watching, I didn't know who to look at – Colette, Kendrick, Anderson, or maybe Kim? The creators of this film make sure that we get to know the characters, especially the famous man who stowed away on their spaceship. Penna puts pressure on the budding bond between Michael and Zoe. As Barnett and David have years on Zoe regarding space travel and overall experience being out in the universe, Zoe struggles with decisions and hard truths that she learns in the hardest of ways.
There are a few memorable moments that feel almost nostalgic in nature. As Zoe, Commander Barnett, and David land at the space station and begin unpacking, we can see mementos left behind by past explorers. The station's walls have become a memory lane – many embroidered patches with astronauts' signatures remain on the cold, metal surface. It made me think about that good ol' phrase, spoken by many people before, "if walls could talk…" If the walls of this space station could talk, what would they say? What unforgettable stories about sacrifice, miracle, and discovery would they tell us?
Joe Penna, alongside co-writer, Ryan Morrison, wanted to create a space film that contains philosophical conundrums and moral dilemmas. They masterfully work all of these conundrums into the script, creating something more contemplative than just another mission to Mars film. Penna puts pressure on the inside of the ship instead of the outside. He wants us to observe and analyze the dynamics of the crew. While we follow the plot and the events transpiring onboard, numerous "what if" questions come to mind. What if the spaceship is designed to carry only three passengers, but there is a fourth one with them? What if they need to decide to leave one person behind, otherwise they all die? These are the excellent "what if" questions that make us wonder. Penna presents them all and makes it an anxiety-packed reality for his characters.
The film moves at a slower than normal yet steady pace. The tension builds gradually, allowing us to fully understand the characters' emotions and what they're going through as time progresses. The film lacks any of the typical action scenes from modern space films, which may feel like a flaw to some viewers who were expecting something thrilling, making it a rather boring experience. Nonetheless, it will be an adventure for those who want to have their minds challenged by moral polemics.
There are fears that paralyze us. Some are quite irrational, like fearing that someone will cut your fingers off with an ice skate when you fall on ice. But some fears are more serious. Nothing scares me more than slowly but surely losing the air. Whether it's out in the ocean, or in a cave, or, in this case, in space. The vast, uncharted blackness especially fills my head with anxiety. The third act is explicitly packed with this exact kind of anxiety. The out-of-this-world story of Stowaway is breathtaking and, at the same time, quite terrifying. It's something I'd love to see in a cinema. It astounds even on a TV screen at home; one can only wonder how extraordinary it would be to watch this on a big cinema screen.
Penna's sci-fi drama depicts the ugliness of people in situations where death is imminent and survival mode kicks in. The director puts his characters in the spotlight, directing the audience's attention away from all the surrounding outer space back towards them. Penna pushes us to consider what if scenarios regarding survival and exploration. Stowaway is not a film for those looking for a lot of action or for an outburst of spectacular special effects. The thrill and high anxiety of space travel are still very present, but in a different way. If you're interested in human interactions while they're confined in a small space and the air is running out, this is worth a watch.
Zofia's Rating: 4 out of 5
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