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Review: Sci-Fi Drama 'Stowaway' Features a Great Cast and Intriguing Premise, but Fails to Launch

by Megan Kearns
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Apr 22, 2021
Toni Collette in 'Stowaway'
Toni Collette in 'Stowaway'  (Source:Stowaway Productions )

Disaster scenarios reveal much about characters and primal emotions. While "Stowaway" offers an intriguing premise, the sci-fi chamber piece never lives up to its full potential.

Directed and co-written by Joe Penna, "Stowaway" centers around a three-person crew that embarks on a two-year mission to Mars: Zoe (Anna Kendrick), a doctor and medical researcher; Marina (Toni Colette), the ship's commander; and David (Daniel Dae Kim), a botanist. But when they find an unexpected passenger (Shamier Anderson) on board, their diminishing oxygen supply and limited resources force them to make a dire choice.

The film opens with the launch, focusing on Zoe's awestruck reactions and the crew's exuberance and camaraderie. They sign their names on a wall, commemorating their work. It's Marina's last mission, while Zoe believes it will irrevocably change her life.

Less than 12 hours after launching and docking with a space station, Marina sees blood on the floor, underneath the life support hatch. When she opens the sealed door, an unconscious man falls out and onto her, injuring her arm. After regaining consciousness, the man, Michael, sees Earth spinning (a result of the ship's rotation, a method of simulating gravity) and panics. Accidentally onboard (he's a launch support engineer), Michael insists he return home to his sister, as he's her legal guardian. Marina says they can't go back, since there's not enough fuel.

The cast is great; Toni Collette is a particularly chameleonic actor. While they give solid performances, "Stowaway" never fully develops their characters. David has a wife and likes jazz music. Zoe teases David about the rivalry between their respective alma maters. In a message to his sister, Michael — who's working on his master's in structural engineering and has always dreamed of space exploration — shares his admiration for the crew, calling them "smart, caring, driven." A shot of Marina, Zoe, and David, respectively, accompanies each trait he verbalizes. It's simplistic character development.

Marina soon discovers the equipment removing carbon dioxide from the air has been damaged due to Michael's fall. She asks David how much carbon dioxide the microgreens and algae he's researching could remove, as they won't have enough oxygen otherwise. Zoe insists they can find a solution. As David reveals to Michael the situation's severity, the camera lingers on Michael; we sit with his discomfort. Whenever Marina speaks with mission control, we never hear them, only Marina's responses. It reifies the crew's solitude; they're on their own.

"Stowaway" poses an ethical quandary: What would you do if there aren't enough resources for everyone to live? It's a terrifying prospect, which should generate vigorous discussions. Yet for life-or-death consequences, everything feels surprisingly muted and anti-climactic. The film touches on themes of morality, cooperation, and sacrifice. As the stakes escalate, we should feel increased tension and intensity. Zoe and David argue over whether each has done enough keep everyone alive; characters weep in solitude, grappling with their situation. Despite these poignant scenes, I felt emotional distance.

"Stowaway" is the latest rehash of a sci-fi trope that stretches back to at least 1954, with the classic story "The Cold Equations," by Tom Godwin. That story has been brought to life on radio (in 1955, as an episode of "X Minus One") television (in 1989, as a "Twilight Zone" episode in the '80s revival of the iconic anthology series, and also as a 1996 telefilm on the Sci-Fi Channel - before it was SyFy), and even on the web (a short film of the same title premiered on YouTube in 2014). This iteration isn't much of a standout.

I appreciate the filmmakers' attention to detail regarding scientific accuracy through script consultants for jet propulsion, aerospace engineering, algae, radiation shielding, and space tethering.

I applaud the film's racial and gender diversity. Yet, framing the decision of whether or not a Black man or an Asian American man lives or dies feels unsettling, considering the reality of Black Lives Matter and police brutality and the proliferation of hate crimes against Asian people.

"Stowaway" is an okay film with solid performances. Despite its compelling premise, it doesn't fully develop its characters, nor does it fully explore the depths of its moral dilemma. Unfortunately, it never gets off the ground.

"Stowaway" is available on Netflix on April 22, 2021.

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