The premise of Stowaway begins with a workplace accident, in which a hapless engineer gets knocked unconscious while prepping a shuttle for a two-year round-trip expedition to Mars. By the time he’s discovered, it’s twelve hours after launch and Michael is now the unwitting fourth member of a three-person crew.
Long story short, the process of getting the unconscious Michael out of harm’s way caused some damage to the life support systems and the transport craft can only sustain two people for the duration of the voyage. In point of fact, this craft was designed for two passengers, so a complement of three was already pushing it, never mind four. Thus our crew has to figure out either A) how to find a workaround such that all four can stay on the mission, or B) who gets thrown out an airlock.
It’s a genius premise, quite frankly. The set is extremely small, the cast is limited to four, and the transport craft is designed to rotate in such a way that simulating zero-G isn’t a factor. The idea is stone-simple, to the point where anyone can appreciate the stakes and the conflict with a simple elevator pitch. And we get some neatly intelligent hard science fiction in the bargain. So let’s take a closer look, shall we?
The film comes to us from director/co-writer Joe Penna, a Brazilian who came up as a musician on YouTube. After a respectable career in music videos and short films, he made his feature debut in 2019 with Arctic, another survival drama with an extremely limited cast. In fact, though I haven’t seen the film myself, it looks like Mads Mikkelsen was pretty much the entire cast. Though Mikkelsen is a talented enough actor that he could easily carry a film on his own, but I digress.
The stowaway of the title is Michael, played by Shamir Anderson. He’s a grunt who was never trained to be an astronaut, though he’s apparently smart enough to be going for his master’s in engineering. As such, he serves nicely as an audience viewpoint character and an excuse for the other characters to convey vital exposition. Plus, this mission was intended to survey Mars for signs that the red planet could sustain life. Thus our crew is mostly comprised of scientists and biologists, so Michael’s skill set as an engineer comes in quite handy.
The commander is Marina (Toni Collette), a veteran on her third and final space mission. The resident physician is Zoe (Anna Kendrick), fresh out of Yale; and David (Daniel Dae Kim) is our botanist out of Harvard. Needless to say, the two have a kind of friendly rivalry going on.
Last but not least, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this isn’t a NASA mission. Though context is scarce, it appears that a private company called Hyperion is responsible for the voyage at the heart of this sci-fi survival drama. Does anyone else hear alarm bells, or is that just me?
Anyway, the film is mercifully good enough to give us some time with the characters before the bigger crisis sets in. The filmmakers put a lot of effort into showing how our core trio of astronauts work together, and how Michael is integrated into part of the team. The survival aspect is so much more harrowing because the interplay between characters is all so beautifully effective, and everyone in the cast is effortlessly charming. Everyone is so darn likeable that the thought of any of them dying or turning against each other makes for some delectable tension.
Alas, the whole thing starts to crumble as all the signs of idiocy pile up.
The first major red flag was the transport craft itself, with the shuttle, the solar array, and the living/working quarters all connected to each other by way of wire tethers. The craft is made of three completely separate components all flying around each other, and they’re connected by goddamn steel cables. The whole clusterfuck looks so flimsy and laughably impractical, I’ve got to wonder who the hell designed it!
Yes, I know that the craft was designed this way so we could get a harrowing third-act EVA sequence in which our astronauts have to make it from the living quarters to the shuttle. But the fact remains that something so routine is made into a time-consuming, labor-intensive, and potentially fatal ordeal for no reason at all. And it involves going past the photovoltaic panels, which means that even the slightest misstep could electrocute the astronauts and/or permanently damage the power to the entire ship. Furthermore, it might have been made a lot less hazardous if anyone on the crew could (or at least thought to) stop the craft from constantly spinning.
I can’t even get into further details without going into spoilers, but suffice to say that something as basic as a few tethers and a roll of duct tape might have gone a long way. It’s all so FUCKING STUPID.
As for the characters themselves, of course I can appreciate that they’re all stuck in this life-or-death scenario. The problem is that that these characters (three of the four, anyway) are freaking astronauts. There’s a reason why it takes so many years of training to get anywhere near the cockpit of a space shuttle. There’s a reason why crews are carefully selected to work as a cohesive team under the most difficult scenarios. There’s a reason why astronauts are specifically chosen for their cool under pressure and capacity for quick thinking.
Because if any real astronauts reacted to an equipment malfunction like these fatalistic and reckless characters, they’d all be fucking dead.
In point of fact, why weren’t there redundancies or failsafes in place to fix such mission-critical equipment as the goddamn CO2 scrubber? I have to assume it’s because the multibillion-dollar private company was looking to cut costs with little regard for employee safety, because that’s the only way this makes any sense. Maybe I’m just talking out of my ass here, but I can’t imagine any NASA mission sending a crew up to the black with only one CO2 scrubber at risk of frying out with the slightest electrical short. Don’t get me wrong, as much as I love the premise, its execution here means that everyone in charge of this mission would have to be so impossibly stupid that I start to lose all sympathy. Sorry, but if Hyperion sends up a shuttle that’s essentially built to fail, they deserve all the lawsuits they get from the next of kin.
Oh, and the pacing sucks. This is maybe 90 minutes’ worth of story stretched out into two hours. And it certainly doesn’t help that so much of padding went into stretching out that godawful third act.
Stowaway is a fantastic premise and a wonderful cast wasted on filmmakers with no idea what the hell they were doing. For someone with such an apparent fascination with survival films, Joe Penna seems frightfully ignorant of the principle that survival films live and die on the wits of its characters. We want to see people outwitting and overcoming the disaster. Even if they fail and die, we can at least know that they did everything possible. Nobody wants to see a survival drama about people struggling with disasters of their own making.
This movie, from start to finish, suffers in the details. There were so many problems in this narrative that might have been avoided (or at least mitigated) with an ounce of common sense. Indeed, a lot of the problems in this movie are only exacerbated because the characters won’t stay calm and use their heads. Furthermore, while I’m no astrophysicist, even a dummy like me knows well enough to spot all the wildly inaccurate bullshit made up for the sake of dramatic license at the cost of the characters’ competence.
The Martian was a far better example of a hard sci-fi survival film set in outer space. Ditto for Gravity. Ad Astra made more sense than this. For all its faults, freaking Passengers made more sense than this. Shit, Lucy in the Sky was a wretched fiasco, but at least it showed greater awareness that its protagonist was a useless mess.
But Stowaway? The movie looks nice enough, and I give full marks to the actors for doing so well with what they were given. But I can’t recommend a movie that so thoroughly insults the audience’s intelligence.