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Of Mars, morality and mortality – ‘Stowaway’

April 26, 2021
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Stories that spring from the dangers of distance have always fascinated us. Whether they are journeys into the wilderness, across the sea or into the heavens, the perils of separation from those who might help us should emergencies arise can make for compelling drama.

Stories of space travel have largely supplanted those of treks into the wild or over the waves; so many space stories – particularly ones that seek to hew relatively close to the realm of the plausible – revolve around the idea that help will not and cannot come. In space, you’re more or less on your own.

“Stowaway,” the new film directed by Joe Penna from a script that Penna co-wrote with Ryan Morrison, is the latest exploration of the unforgiving nature of the unknown and the emotional consequences that can come with being forced to make impossible choices.

It’s also a crackerjack space movie, one in which care has clearly been taken to maintain a degree of verisimilitude that exceeds that of all but the most meticulously-crafted near-future sci-fi. It’s a taut thriller, one that mines tension from moments that could have felt flat and/or mundane in the hands of another filmmaker.

A two-year mission to Mars is just getting underway. The three-person mission is led by Captain Marina Barrett (Toni Collette, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”); joining her are plant biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim, “Raya and the Last Dragon”) and medical researcher Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick, TV’s “Love Life”). The trio blasts into orbit, then tethers the ship to part of the launch vehicle to create inertia-based artificial gravity.

They’re a few hours into their journey when they make a startling discovery: a passenger.

Specifically, they find Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson, “Son of the South”), a launch support engineer with NASA, unconscious and bleeding behind a service panel. Zoe patches him up and he eventually regains consciousness, but the ship is moving too fast for them to turn around. Like it or not, he’s part of the mission now.

Only it turns out that Michael inadvertently damaged an important piece of equipment during the incident that led to his accidental presence. A device intended to scrub carbon dioxide from the ship’s air supply – vital to maintaining breathable air for the duration of the journey – has been rendered inoperable and irreparable.

It soon becomes clear – as things stand, there is no way for four people to survive this mission for the duration. And as the quest for a solution grows more frantic, the unthinkable option rears its head: remove one of the people. As the moral and ethical ramifications swirl, these four individuals must confront the harsh reality of their situation – without a miracle, they’re doomed. And yet, the sheer weight of the decision remains present.

Is there an answer? And is it an answer whose impact they can bear?

If that seems like a tight synopsis, that’s because “Stowaway” actually has a relatively tight narrative timeframe – what we see takes place over the course of days. The central conflict – one whose potential resolutions I will not be sharing due to spoilers – boils down to the stowaway and what can be done. It’s a look at what it means to make life-or-death decisions on an individual level, to make those choices when they directly impact you. How much should one be willing to sacrifice for the well-being of another? And how can one ask another to make that sacrifice?

One of the things that I dug about this movie was the obvious effort made in rendering a picture of space travel that feels at least somewhat feasible. Yes, I know that there are almost certainly large unexplained technological leaps at play here, but for the most part, the rigors of space travel are presented with a fair degree of realism. Sure, the ship is too big – they’re ALWAYS too big – but in general, it feels possible in a way that sci-fi doesn’t always concern itself with. The film is rife with little touches that illustrate these efforts.

Another effective choice made by Penna and company is the complete absence of other voices. Whenever the folks on the ship are engaged in contact with others, we only hear their sides of the respective conversations. No matter if they’re speaking to mission control or the media or their loved ones, we never hear the words being spoken to them. It’s an elegant way in which to reinforce the utter isolation in which these people are operating, a shorthand that reminds us how completely and utterly on their own they actually are.

That also means that we’ve got a very small cast – just four people total. That cast size and the nature of the film might make you think that this was a pandemic production, but the film actually wrapped back in the summer of 2019.

Let’s talk about that cast, shall we? Because it is VERY good. Kendrick is probably what you’d call the “star,” though this is in essence an ensemble piece. Her wide-eyed mien makes her a good fit in this part; she largely suppresses her gift for snarkiness and offers up a sincere performance. Kim and Collette don’t get quite the room for character development that Kendrick does, though both are talented enough to overcome that lack of space to craft quality performances. And Anderson is great as the stowaway, offering a glimpse at what it means to come to terms with your own mortality and effective expendability. Unsurprisingly, the movie is at its best when any or all of these actors come together to confront the moral quagmire presented by the situation; the emotional pain feels suitably raw.

There are a couple of issues here – the pacing lags somewhat in the film’s middle third, for instance – but for the most part, “Stowaway” works because it focuses on the complexities of its circumstances, allowing everything else to fall in place around that troubling central conflict.

Matters of life and death are never small ones, but by forcing its characters to deal with them in isolation, “Stowaway” creates a tense and emotionally fraught sci-fi thriller, a film that directly confronts you with the question of what is to be done when the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 26 April 2021 10:44

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