More compelling, at least to me, than your average everyday survival thriller is the subgenre of space survival. Most sci-fi movies fall into this category one way or another; how could they not when you’re dealing with the outer reaches of unknown territory with no help for light years away? But in recent years we’ve seen these movies really take a step forward (thank you Gravity and The Martian) in prevalence and in smarts. Another strong entry is Joe Penna’s Stowaway, an intense, logical, and yes thrilling small-scale film that feels bigger for the way it realistically handles disaster in an unbelievable situation.
It’s a small ensemble for this one, led by Anna Kendrick, Toni Collette (you just know she’s a team leader, right?), and Daniel Dae Kim as astronauts on Hyperion’s Mars expedition. Right off the bat you sense how weird it is to see such a small crew for a journey like this. Each member of the team hold multiple functions, with Zoe (Kendrick) as the medical researcher and physician, Marina (Collette) as mission leader, and David (Kim) as biologist. They are scientists on a specifically scientific mission, with years of training and analysis having gone into it. Still, the size of the crew tickles at the back of your brain as counter-intuitive.
However, there’s someone who shouldn’t be there. Shortly after launch, a wounded engineer named Michael (Shamier Anderson) is discovered and the crew must decide what to do with him. Why can’t they just…y’know, let him tag along? Well, they try that for a while. Michael, who had worked on the ship and always wanted to be on one of these expeditions, is basically made a part of the team. He works to earn his keep, and befriends the others. But when it’s discovered that a malfunction has severely limited their resources and oxygen to sustain just three people, Michael’s place on the ship is suddenly under threat.
The ship, having only been designed to carry two crewmembers (!!!) was outfitted to allow for three, but sacrifices had to be made for that to happen. The ship’s outer hull was reduced, providing less protection in the case of…let’s say a cosmic storm, and the interior has only the most basic functionality. All of this comes into play when Michael’s arrival fucks up the inner workings. Hyperion might be a government agency looking to save the tax payers a few bucks, who knows? Or a corporation with frugal stockholders. Whatever the reason, they made a bad call, Ripley.
Stowaway is a survival thriller in the trust sense of the word, because not only are these people forced to deal with the unknown threat of space, but their own natures. Conflict arises when two members of the crew decide Michael is expendable, but one chooses to fight against that, even though his presence puts all of their survival at risk.
Director Joe Penna and co-writer Ryan Morrison, who previously worked together on another survival thriller, the Mads Mikkelsen film Arctic, take aims to put everyone’s perspective in the spotlight without a ton of weighty exposition. Nobody comes across as a villain here; in fact, they are all quite likeable in their own ways. We’re trained to be suspicious of Michael because we’ve all seen too many movies like Sunshine where somebody goes nuts and tries to kill everyone, but that’s not really what Stowaway is going for. It is a moral and ethical dilemma in deep space, where sacrifices are made on both ends of the debate, with ultimate survival the goal they wish to achieve. For the most part this is hard sci-fi more than it is a nerve-racking psycho-thriller.
If you had Kendrick pegged as the movie’s conscience then you know her filmography all too well. She’s quite good as our surrogate to the action, so to speak, and as the one who befriends Michael the most. It’s also interesting how Penna places Zoe above David in terms of physical capability, establishing early on that she is stronger and more resilient than him, a fact we know will rear its head at some point. Personally, I adore any chance to have Collette use her native Australian accent, and she gets to here as the crew’s beleaguered commander, weighing their rapidly dwindling options against her own principals.
Penna saves Stowaway‘s big fireworks for a couple of Gravity-esque scenes in the final act, but the tension outside the ship is nothing compared to what had been going on inside. And so the finale can’t quite measure up, ending on an unsatisfying whimper that nobody will hear because in space nobody can hear you in the first place.
Netflix will premiere Stowaway on April 23rd.