When filmmakers decide to take on a project that’s set in space, it’s rarely a story about something going right. Successes don’t have the inherent drama that failures do, and when mistakes happen in space, they automatically involve life-or-death decisions given the difficulty in getting back to Earth and the relative flimsiness of the spacecraft.
The new Netflix movie Stowaway is full of that kind of drama, if not complete believability. Three astronauts — Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick), and David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim) — launch on a two-year mission to Mars as the film begins. All appears to be going swimmingly until Marina discovers Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson), an engineer who somehow got stuck in a panel aboard the spaceship, unintentionally becoming a stowaway.
His presence brings up some immediate concerns, like who will look after his sister back on Earth and the stretching of a food supply meant for only three people. But all of that takes a backseat when the crew finds out Michael accidentally damaged the air system for the ship, putting not just the voyage but their lives in jeopardy.
Directed by Joe Penna and written by Penna and Ryan Morrison, the film has a similar feel to the filmmakers’ previous entry, 2018’s Arctic. Characters in an extreme locale must face a series of challenges, some of which they are equipped to handle and some which they are not. And every decision they make is crucial, as a wrong step could spell doom for everybody involved.
The actual execution of the plot here is hit-and-miss. While Penna and Morrison do their best to break down the minutiae of trying to fix a broken spaceship into something understandable, they still get stuck in the weeds at times. The script also has a curious lack of explanations about some important aspects of the story, most notably how Michael ended up on the ship in the first place.
The hows of the story are mostly secondary to each of the characters' reactions to the situation facing them. The filmmakers try to inject a bit of humor to balance out the drama, but given the severity of the predicament, laughter is hard to find. The stress each person is feeling can be read all over their faces, so that even when the technical jargon is mystifying, the reality of what they’re enduring is not.
It also becomes abundantly clear as the film goes along that the budget is relatively low compared to other space-set films. Scenes involving computer-generated imagery are few and far between, used at only the most important moments. They also make a big deal out of the idea of artificial gravity so they don’t have to show the actors floating around all the time. Neither of these affects the story all that much, although it is strange to see the characters just walking around normally as if they weren’t in space.
What keeps the movie going is the quality of acting across the board. Collette, Kendrick, and Kim each bring their award-worthy skills to their parts, working well as a team from the get-go. Anderson, despite a long filmography, may not be familiar to most viewers, but he holds his own against the better-known actors.
Stowaway is no space classic, but it has enough going for it to make it watchable throughout. Going through an emergency in space is easy to fathom, and the actors make the danger palpable through their performances.
Stowaway is now streaming on Netflix.