It feels like a very long time since I took in Joe Penna’s Arctic back in 2019. A masterpiece of minimalism in terms of cast, script and locations, the film has since taken on a bit of a greater resonance with me, dealing as it does with themes of enforced isolation, hopelessness in the midst of extended crisis and the battle between selfish self-interest and the community ethos of humanity. Penna could not have realised it but, just as with something like last years Sea Fever, he inadvertently found one of the perfect films for the COVID era. Go and give it a watch, seriously.
Which leads us to his next project. You could see straight away the lingering traces of the film that Arctic was in the premise of Stowaway: both dealing with humanity in crisis in remote situations, both asking the hard question as to what we are willing sacrifice, in ourselves or in others, at the moment of true “do-or-die”, both offering that aforementioned minimalist sensibility (that and Penna originally wanted to set Arctic on Mars). He’s expanded out his cast though, for four slam-dunks in Stowaway, over the one-and-a-bit of Arctic, so this film does indicate what I can only describe as an exciting evolution in the work of one of the landscapes most exciting young directors. I had reservations about the seeming similarity of Stowaway to a number of other films in the genre, but I was very much all in on this. Worth the trip, or should I have considered not bothering?
Commander Barnett (Toni Collette), biologist David (Daniel Dae Kim) and medical researcher Zoe (Anna Kendrick) depart Earth on the Hyperion, a scientific expedition to a proto-Martian colony. Shortly after the beginning of their journey they are horrified to discover an intended passenger, laucnh engineer Michael (Shamier Anderson), inadvertently carried aboard the ship after a one-in-a-million oversight. What begins as a manageable variable in their mission soon changes to life-or-death, when it is realised that the ship only has enough air for three of the four passengers to survive the journey.
This particular sub-genre of science fiction has been very popular the last few years, ever since Gravity really blew the lid off of what I would like to call “space-based problem-solving”. You know the type: less explosions, more graphs. The Martian remains the stand-out, and has clearly influenced a whole range of films and TV shows in its wake, from Netflix’s Lost In Space to Ad Astra. Stowaway slots in to this group neatly enough, giving us both a technological problem to be solved – how does a crew of three come up with enough oxygen for a crew of four with a damaged space ship – but probably hits home much better with its moral problem: namely if there is no way to generate the oxygen, can the extra crew-member be convinced to make the ultimate sacrifice?
This is all well and good, and I do think that Stowaway does a good job with that idea. Its examination of that conundrum as presented by its premise is interesting, and even with only four cast members it is able to get across a number of different viewpoints. Barnett is driven by detached practicality, even if it is tearing her up inside: she knows they can’t just magic up the air that they need, but is also fearful of confronting Michael directly with the problem. David is regretful, but the most amorally pragmatic, wanting to get on with the grisly task of convincing Michael to commit suicide so the rest of them can live, and taking his own unilateral steps to get it done. And Zoe is the opposite, essentially wanting to fight to the very last moment for Michael’s life, even if the realistic chances of success are low to the point of non-existence. We see a lot of different ideas given voice here: an almost corporate-driven delineation of who is valuable enough to live, or not; an animalistic insistence on personal survival; and a charitable, compassion-driven blindness to practical circumstances in the face of human suffering.
But the film does suffer from seeming very derivative of some of the things I have mentioned before. It’s simply not the most original of work: even as I write this I’m remembering more sci-fi productions that have a similar premise, like the episode “Out Of Gas” in Firefly, or a shot of a stargazing spot that seems like a riff on Tony Stark’s derelict ship in Avengers: Endgame, or even non-sci-fi stuff, like Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. In many ways it doesn’t feel like Stowaway really has anything new to say, or really has any great interest in having new things to say. You will have seen the various components of the film somewhere else, even if the adding up of them all might create something that approaches unique. And of course it is very similar to the basic ideas that you found behind Arctic.
Both films have the characters reaching the critical moment where they are faced with an easy choice to abandon their fellow humans or the hard one to fight for them, potentially at the cost of your own life. The sense of compassion and being able to go the extra mile for your fellow man is very present, especially in an elongated (maybe too elongated) final act where in the crew attempt a dangerous last-ditch effort to save everyone, and that does give Stowaway a certain something. Other directors may well have leaned into the darker aspects of the moral dilemma – one can easily imagine the premise being repurposed as a horror movie in the hands of someone else, maybe with the Michael character having secretly stowed away deliberately – but I like that Penna sticks with a mostly positive message of what we are capable of when it comes to helping each other.
The cast is the real saving grave of the film I think, all doing very good work in their own ways. Collette comes across quite well as the very hard-pressed and maybe not-quite-up-to-dealing-with-a-crisis Barnett, who is used to dealing with practical matters (in a tense moment in the opening she nearly aborts the mission because she hears the engine “underperforming” in a way the audience certainly could not pick-up) Kendrick is a suitable representation of the human capacity to hang on and keep fighting for each other, Dae Kim manages to mix the role of an unemotional scientist with a very emotional survivor and Anderson, while perhaps the least important in terms of cast roles, is still quite buyable as a guy who can boast the very worst example of “wrong place, wrong time” in human history. His panic attack upon realising where he is some of the best acting I have seen this year, and there’s an interesting inversion of tropes in that character, as his willingness to become involved in the mission is largely pointless as he has no training. The cast work well with a difficult script, managing to get beyond its talk of microgreens and algae to make it work.
More than that, I like that the film is also taking a bit of a swipe at corporate detachment. I think the implication is that the Hyperion is a private voyage to Mars, and the people in charge of the flight back at home are not NASA types who are going to pull an Apollo 13, they just want the problem dealt with. The ship itself is noted as being initially designed with oxygen for two, and was converted to just barely cover three, which seems like the kind of thing you can imagine coming with a bland corporate logo and a message of “doing more with less”. This faceless entity would appear to be the true antagonist of Stowaway, an uncaring, distant figure that has no time for human sentiment. The mission is the mission, and while elements of this thinking comes into the thought process of Barnett and David, it does not overcome them completely.
The sense of isolation that pervades is also an important part of why Stowaway is as good as it is, despite the flaws mentioned earlier. The Hyperion is a small place, where even two characters seem compressed when sharing a room, but it also feels like a very empty place. That’s to the credit of the emotion of the film, where it does seem like every character is on their own little island in a sea of isolation. Looking out of the window at a revolving Earth or stars begins as a beautiful thing, but rapidly becomes just another reminder of how far away from comfort the characters are, and how hostile the environment is. The realism of the ship, that Penna and his team obviously took a lot of trouble over, right down the factually correct exposed wiring, helps ground the film nicely, and imbues the viewer that feeling “This could conceivably happen”.
The minimalist sensibility is reflected in the cinematography, which has to do what it can from the enclosing sets and the claustrophobic nature of the spaceship. The opening is a sort of quasi oner of the lift-off from Earth with the camera locked mostly on the faces of the three official crew-members as the ship shakes violently, which emphasises the personal nature of the story straight away (a nice touch being Dae Kim utilising a sick bag when they reach orbit). Throughout the film, but most obviously near the beginning on a media call, the communications with Earth are depicted in an entirely one-sided way, with mission control just a teeny voice in the ear you can’t quite make out, a great technique for emphasising the isolation of the situation (and which, in a time of COVID-enforced isolation, only adds to the films resonance). The film never loses itself in the science-fiction of the world, save in the finale perhaps, where confusion arises over exactly what the crew if trying to do to save the day, in that lengthy space walk and a death defying chase involving solar waves. Worth noting also is the score by Volker Bertelmann. This is a simplistic thing in a lot of ways, but the basic electronica and rhythmic beats do add something to the atmosphere, becoming a sort of otherworldly accompaniment to what is going on, unsettling and decidedly strange the deeper the characters get into space.
So, Stowaway has its ups and down. Penna is essentially trying to make lightning strike twice with a very similar film to Arctic, and there are obvious issues that come with that. One wishes that it might have a bit more daring in that regard, and that’s before you recognise the other derivative aspects of Stowaway that owe much to other entries in this particular sub-sub-genre. But there is plenty otherwise to pique interest. The four cast members are great, working well with a script that lesser players might well have struggled with. The film looks good and sounds good. It does give us a pretty through examination of a pretty dire moral quandary, and infuses its narrative with the same sense of hope and compassion that made Arctic as good as it was. It is a bit of a step down from Penna’s first film, but not that far of a step down. One hopes that he might branch out now if he chooses to continue making movies. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).