Stowaway review: Netflix’s sci-fi drama is oddly down to Earth

Back in 2007, when Danny Boyle’s space-thriller Sunlight struck theaters, all the vital and audience reaction appeared to state approximately the very same thing: Boyle lost an actually excellent major area thriller by turning it into a ridiculous area slasher. Raise Sunlight with somebody who’s seen it, and opportunities are high that they’ll state some version on, “The first half where they’re just dealing with technical malfunctions was great, so why did he have to throw in a psycho killer?” Now everybody who’s ever declared they desired the full-length variation of the very first act of Sunlight has an opportunity to show it: Netflix’s brand-new area drama Stowaway is essentially the mournful, reality-driven space-crisis motion picture Sunlight at first pretended to be.

And it isn’t as pleasing as we when envisioned.

Brazilian writer-director Joe Penna appears completely dedicated to keeping Stowaway subtle and sensible, a minimum of to the degree it can be while keeping his property. That isn’t a technique filmmakers ever take with contemporary sci-fi, which is practically constantly about huge, broad action. There’s none of the humor or enjoyment of The Martian in Stowaway, and none of the breath-stealing speed or vertigo of Gravity, despite the fact that the property remembers both of those motion pictures. The movie doesn’t even throw away outrageous Star Trek-design technobabble in an effort to whiz past its plot contrivances. For anybody who’s ever listened to recordings of a NASA launch, with tomb, calm individuals performing their tasks with capable focus, Stowaway will just hardly feel fictionalized. There’s an excellent novelty to this sort of sci-fi. Without aliens, lasers, and surges, in addition to temper tantrums, Oscar-bait shouted speeches, and other histrionics, Stowaway is totally free to check out an expert crisis in an expert way. It’s simply that its technique is up until now far from sci-fi conventions that it might not have the ability to hold audiences’ attention at the same time.

Toni Collette, Anna Kendrick, and Daniel Dae Kim star as 3 astronauts on a two-year objective to Mars, where they’re suggested to carry out biological and botanical experiments that may lead the way for an ultimate manned base. Marina (Collette), their leader, is on her 3rd and last objective. The other 2, David (Kim) and Zoe (Kendrick), are headed into area for the very first time, and are both worried and delighted. Penna and co-writer Ryan Morrison signify their intents for the movie’s soft, tech-heavy tone by concentrating on absolutely nothing however the minutiae of spaceflight for the very first 20 minutes of the movie’s 116-minute runtime: The 3 astronauts launch, dock with the station where they’ll be residing on their journey, and unload the equipment in the station’s module. They take banal interview concerns from Earthside media, and settle into their bunks. They work out, start their experiments, and carefully josh each other. There’s no tip of stress or difficulty for almost a fifth of the motion picture.

Shamier Anderson sits alone in front of a window on space in Stowaway

Picture: Netflix

Then, quickly, they discover themselves in Tom Godwin’s traditional 1954 science-fiction story “The Cold Equations.” Their ship has an unanticipated traveler: support-crew member Michael (Shamier Anderson), who in some way wound up caught and unconscious inside their life-support module’s walls. They treat him and inform the assistance teams back home, verifying that there’s no other way to terminate the objective, or return him to Earth. Without any other alternative, he ultimately begins settling into an approximation of team life. However the mathematics on his existence doesn’t build up: thanks to a harmed carbon-dioxide scrubber and the existence of an additional human on board, the transit module doesn’t have sufficient oxygen for 4 individuals to make it to Mars. It might not even have enough oxygen for two of them to survive.

In The Martian, this exact kind of dilemma was used to spin out a tense thriller, alternating between a stranded astronaut and his support crew back home, both applying ingenuity and fierce determination toward solving the problem and saving his life. Penna and Morrison seemingly decide early on not to tease viewers with that kind of solution. Like “The Cold Equations,” Stowaway winds up being more about the inevitability of the situation, with an added moral question: If one of the four on ship has to die, which one should it be, and when and how should it happen?

There are a thousand ways this story could go, and Stowaway briefly and vaguely teases at pursuing a few of them, including the idea that Michael might have deliberately hitched a ride for some malign purpose. (The Sunshine version of this story absolutely would have turned him into a saboteur and a villain, stalking the ship to take the crew down for some nefarious reason.) Penna might have set the crew violently against each other, spinning up furious arguments or fights over who should die, and giving free rein to the kind of anger and resistance that often comes with the fear of death. They might have chased questions of blame for Michael’s existence, which is never explained, or even really explored. They might have dug into who’s most crucial to the mission, or whose family situation and future most warrants their survival. Given that Michael is the only Black cast member, there was even the potential for an up-to-the-moment political or social angle, considering whether his race, economic standing, or job affects the crew and support team’s thinking around his human value.

Instead, everyone’s remarkably contained about the dilemma, apart from acknowledging that no one wants to die, and no one wants to kill someone else. The crew members differ in the details of when Michael should be told, and how much of their margin of supply they should gamble on keeping him alive for a few more days. But those arguments are terse and subdued, like the rest of the film. Eventually, Penna moves the film toward action — but even that action is focused on the smallest details of science and procedure. The story gets extremely tense, but it’s never a bombastic tension. Even the ending avoids any sort of drama or hysteria.

The cast of Stowaway in their galley, with Anna Kendrick and Daniel Dae Kim wearing oxygen masks, Toni Collette sitting close to them, and Shamier Anderson sitting in the background

Photo: Netflix

Klemens Becker’s cinematography on the film is immaculate: The images are sharp and vivid, with lighting used to stark effect to create moods, whether the characters are sitting in bright labs or silhouetted against a distant Earth seen through a window. It’s a beautiful-looking film, with the coldness of 1960s and ’70s science fiction, enhanced by a striking cast seen in intimate close-ups and telling middle-distance shots. The production design and score all work toward a sense of tasteful, tragic reserve, a space where nothing can be wasted, and even slightly raised voices feel out of place.

But in spite of the scope of the setting — the vast reaches of outer space and the infinite void around the ship — Penna and Morrison keep this story so small, it could be performed on a single set onstage. They choose to never show the support team back home, or even have their voices clearly audible: when Marina or the others talk to their liaisons at home, they keep their earbuds in, and their monitors pointed away from the camera, so no other human faces or spaces can be seen. The environment is claustrophobic and isolated, the kind of pressure-cooker situation that’s meant to ramp up the tension in a horror film, or the desolation in a drama.

But Stowaway rarely takes advantage of that oppression, or connects with its characters in the way horror stories or dramas tend to do. The cast is more than capable: Kendrick has made a career-long specialty in playing intensely sincere characters whose charm wins out over whatever masks they try to wear, and Kim brings a mature weariness to his role as the least morally defensible of the bunch. Collette creates a lot of empathy for her character, even in an underwritten role who has so much of the decision-making taken out of her hands that she’s essentially just a mouthpiece. And Anderson nails a difficult part, playing a man who has to be meek sufficient to not over-assert himself and risk coming across as irrational or dangerous, but still has to have enough agency, personality, and spine not to come across as a cipher. It’s a great cast, they’re just held back at every moment by a story so decorous and reserved, so restrained and humble, that it barely registers.

And in the end, because the tone is so unvarying, it absolutely does not register that the movie is over until the credits start to roll. More than that, because the story has been so low-key and uninflected, it’s unclear what the ending means to any of the characters. A voiceover suggests a moral lesson, without underlining it. There’s no conclusion, no catharsis, and no checking in with any of the characters for a response to the final events. It’s all a strange experience in mood and melancholy, and in how minor details can be used to build a story. And very few individuals are likely to find it satisfying. This isn’t a story that needed a rogue murderer running amok on the ship, but it certainly needed something more, if only to keep audiences from feeling as untethered and adrift at the end as Penna’s camera is in his final wordless shot. It’s admirable to see him trying something so different from the run-of-the-mill space thriller, but apparently there’s a factor people don’t make sci-fi movies this method.

Stowaway is now streaming on Netflix.

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.