I’m not sure what’s more terrifying: The urban legend that NASA gave cyanide capsules to their astronauts if a mission went south, or the reality that the vacuum of space will kill a person much faster than any pill ever could? Our exploration of space may satisfy the human compulsion to explore–indeed, that desire to venture out and look beyond has defined our entire existence–but it also affirms just how fragile we really are. Beyond our microscopic ball of warmth and water lies an expansive oblivion, and any error made in transversing it could result in instant death.
The entirety of Stowaway takes place within that foreboding environment. In the near-future, an advanced rocket takes off for Mars, with three astronauts aboard: Marina (Toni Collette) is the pensive mission commander. David (Daniel Dae Kim) is a botanist whose algae experiments could play a key role in settling the red planet. The crew is rounded out by Zoe (Anna Kendrick) a jovial young woman who serves as the ship’s doctor.
Just as the team settles in for a long journey into night, they uncover a horrifying sight: A fourth traveler was trapped aboard the ship and inadvertently sent into space with them. Michael (Shamier Anderson) was an engineer working pre-launch when an accident rendered him unconscious. By the time Zoe discovers him, the ship cannot return to Earth, and no rendezvous-rescue is possible. For better or worse, Michael’s destiny is now tied to their own.
That destiny soon becomes grimmer: Marina reveals that Michael’s accident permanently damaged the ship’s CO2 filter. No matter what they do, there won’t be enough oxygen for all four of them to survive the journey to Mars. One person will have to be sacrificed, or everyone will perish. Naturally, this leads to some frantic, emotional conversations and impossibly difficult decisions.
It’s here that Stowaway finds its surest footing. The film focuses on the moral, ethical, and spiritual crises, and how each character is driven by their own distinct perspective: Zoe relies on her perpetual optimism that all four crew members can and will ride off into the Martian sunset together. David is chillier and more pragmatic–delaying the inevitable will only make it more difficult. Marina feels the wrenching conflict between the simple logic of being a commander and the terrible burdens of empathy and sympathy. Finally, there’s Michael, a good-hearted individual pushed to the brink by his own guilt and anxiety.
The actors fill this claustrophobic space with the skill of their performances: Kendrick supplies the film with much of its warmth and humor. Kim adds layers of charm and decency to David, thus elevating him from the role of simple antagonist. Collette brilliantly conveys Marina’s devastation from having this choice suddenly heaped upon her. Anderson, a newcomer, makes us root for Michael–maybe even more than others.
Another benefit to the Michael character: As a non-astronaut, the other characters often break down their Trek-y science jargon into plain English for his understanding. That means those of us who aren’t Buzz Aldrin don’t have to drown in a sea of mumbo-jumbo, either. You’ll follow what’s happening in Stowaway, even when the dialogue gets a little dense.
At the same time, don’t expect a lot of brawny action scenes, either. This is a talky, cerebral little film, and a showcase for good actors. It just happens to be set in space. Think of Stowaway on those terms, and you’re much less likely to be disappointed.
On the subject of disappointment, let’s discuss the film’s final act. I won’t give anything away, but I will say the movie peters out toward the end. The filmmakers build on a gripping premise, but the finish feels undercooked and thoroughly unsatisfying. Maybe that was the filmmakers’ intent; maybe the journey means more than the actual destination…or some other such crap. Whatever the case, I just couldn’t dodge the notion that Stowaway tells a pretty good story. It just doesn’t put the right punctuation on the end.
116 min. TV-MA. Netflix.