Films in space can fall into cliche storytelling with the expected character beats, but Joe Penna’s Stowaway delivers competent filmmaking and realistic character beats backed up by a true feel for a space environment that compliments four strong performances.
The film follows the three-person crew of a Mars exploration craft, including the ship’s commander Marina (Toni Collette), biologist David (Daniel Dae Kim) and doctor Zoe (Anna Kendrick). The crew is embarking on a two-year mission in order to explore the viability of sustaining life on Mars. All three are coolly confident in their work and get to work on their daily activities along their five-month journey.
Marina is making the rounds when she discovers blood coming out of a panel. When she open the panel, a launch support engineer named Michael (Shamier Anderson) drops down unconscious. The crew scrambles to keep him alive while also trying to wrap their heads around how this could happen and what this could mean for their journey.
All the characters act like reasonable human beings and are not prone to unnecessary emotional outbursts. Marina even mentions how the three astronauts are trained to psychologically handle the boredom, monotony and seclusion of a two-year mission, while Michael is not. Michael does eventually want to be an astronaut, so he does not sit around or get in the way. He volunteers to do menial tasks and help around the ship in any way he can.
Being an astronaut would accompany a level of intelligence and competency, and no decision a character makes is unmeasured or rushed. Even when a character seemingly makes a rash decision, that character is called out and their motivations are explained and understood. The filmmakers make the interesting choice of limiting the narrative to only the four characters, never even giving a voice to any mission control personnel or other people back on Earth.
All four cast members posit themselves well. Collette conveys steely determination in her mission, but imbues humanity into the role. The ship’s commander could have easily turned stereotypical, but Marina is shown to be practical, but still compassionate. It’s also nice to hear Collette’s native Australian accent. Kim has the least to do, but also exudes warmth and likeability with his passion for plant algae and experimental jazz music.
Anderson is the least known actor of the group and the film is better served for it. When we meet Michael, he is a blank slate without any actorly baggage the other actors would have. We know as much about him as the crew does, and just like the crew, we learn to enjoy his presence. He never feels intimidated and handles the situation as best as he can without handling too well for the character. Kendrick is essentially the lead of the film and tries to transcend any baggage she brings into the film. She competently portrays a doctor with a stately and kind bedside manner and has the most sympathy of the crew.
But, this being a space film, problems must arise and dangerous missions must be embarked upon. The stakes are very high and every avenue is exhausted, but there never seems to be any clean solution, only the one that will take a mental toll on the crew. Nothing is simple and when things go wrong, it has to be broken down in the most complex of ways. This is the film’s biggest struggle.
The ship itself is not some futuristic pleasure palace, but more of a claustrophobic vessel with few windows and clear uses for each subsection. The ship’s entire design, which includes counterweights, solar panels and tethers for artificial gravity are all interestingly conceived and seem to pass any believably test to the layman.
Stowaway features four great performances, a real sense of environment, and actual people instead of stereotypes. If you are in the mood for adult-minded competency porn, then this is the film for you.