There’s a particular kind of movie, often a science fiction film, that has percolated up. The technological and situational challenges drive the emotional reactions, as astronauts or other extraordinary humans try to prevent catastrophic events with limited resources, time and capabilities.
“Apollo 13” is one of the earliest of this sort, and “Gravity,” “The Martian” and now “Stowaway” are its inheritors. They’re really procedurals in space -- trying to painstakingly assemble the pieces to the answer puzzle while certain mayhem is coming down at them, perhaps not imminently but inexorably.
(In a way, you could even argue the last two Avengers movies were space procedurals, with the focus on finding or hiding Infinity Stones to prevent the existential threat, represented as Thanos.)
Like the others, “Stowaway” is not long on characterization. We learn enough about the people we’re watching to understand where they come from and what motivates them, but not a lot of other background.
For example, star Anna Kendrick plays Zoe Levenson, who we know is 1) a doctor, who 2) went to Yale, and 3) initially applied to the Hyperion space program as a joke, and 4) that’s about it. The plot is what moves things along, with the actors finding little spaces to bring out the humanity. Kendrick gives her a sort of quiet, plucky charm -- geek girl as heroine.
Similarly, Toni Collette plays the commander of this mission to a future Mars colony, though I don’t think we ever even hear her name. (The credits give it as Marina Barnett.) She’s a veteran leading her third and last mission and is focused on tamping down miscues. Daniel Dae Kim is David Kim, a botanist who is married and follows the commander’s lead unquestioningly, until…
Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson) is the “until,” a launch engineer who somehow passed out on the ship before blastoff and was never detected. The problem is they only have enough stuff on board for three people, not four, and the CO2 exchanger thingamajig he was caught behind was damaged, so they’re all going to asphyxiate a few weeks before reaching Mars unless Michael… goes away.
The dilemma: find a way to fix the problem so everyone can live, or present Michael with the option of killing himself to save the crew.
Now, it seems pretty implausible that a NASA-like organization could misplace an entire person, what with their mile-long checklists and tracking devices and so on. But director Joe Penna, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ryan Morrison, focuses on the problem and brushes past how it was created.
There’s even a suggestion that maybe Michael’s stowaway status was not entirely accidental. He’s an aspiring astronaut himself, so is it possible he manipulated events to jump ahead of the line? There’s also the hint of attraction between him and Zoe, or at least a bond, so she pushes back against the commander’s plan to do away with him.
“Stowaway” has lots of potential story threads to pursue. For example, Michael is Black and blue-collar, whereas the crew is white and Asian and Ivy League. I kept waiting for some of the new awokening over racial justice to come to the fore -- after all, why should Michael be the one who has to sacrifice himself? Why is his life instantly assigned as less valuable than the others?
Other options present themselves, but every day that goes by with Michael breathing air leaves less margin of error for a solution to present itself. And that’s the sweet spot where the movie gradually, skillfully builds suspense.
One of the choices the filmmakers made that I really liked is for the audience not to witness any of the usual back-and-forth conversations with mission control. We just hear a little squawking over earpieces, so we have to make sense from just one side of the conversation. This heightens the claustrophobic feeling the crew is utterly alone, and their choices and mettle will decide their fate.
“Stowaway” isn’t an ‘exciting’ movie in the traditional sense. There aren’t a lot of action scenes, explosions, lasers, that kind stuff. Most of it is just people inside a cramped spaceship, dealing with impossible scenarios and agonizing over the consequences of their choices.
What would you do in such circumstances? And that’s why we watch.