For new Netflix survival drama Stowaway, director Joe Penna, reteams with his writing partner (and editor) Ryan Morrison, in a spiritual successor to their first film, Arctic. That film, starring Mads Mikkelsen as a near lone survivor in the frozen wastes, demonstrated the talent Penna and Morrison have for extracting drama from bare-bones bleak survivalism. But where is there to go after you’ve tackled death defiance in such extreme conditions? Not to sea, obviously; who’d take on Robert Redford in All is Lost? So really that just leaves the inside of a volcano...or space, I guess.
After a crew of three astronauts on a two-year round trip to Mars find their rockets underperforming at take-off, they soon discover the cause: 180lbs of extra weight in the shape of structural engineer Michael. Michael had been rendered unconscious during an accident in preparations for launch, but it’s not just a bump on the noggin this team of now four have to contend with. Michael’s pre-launch accident also created some not insignificant life-support issues. With 6 months to Mars, and enough oxygen to last the four of them 5 months, the crew are faced with a series of practical and ethical dilemmas.
Whilst first impressions of the plot might sound like a slightly speculative take on Apollo 13, Stowaway quickly finds ways and means to dispel many of those comparisons. Where Ron Howard’s movie skews towards the triumphant ingenuity of the ground crew, Penna and Morrison cut us off completely from the presumed panic in mission control. With the exception of the opening minutes, we are left to guess at what might be happening back on Earth, as we hear only the crew’s side of troubling conversations. This focus on the isolation of space and on the four characters in front of us takes us easily into the quickly apparent dark heart of the movie – not how they’ll fix the life support, but how they’ll choose who will survive.
...balance between moments of space disaster and introspective character building.
Making this seemingly obvious decision harder is Shamir Anderson, playing the eponymous stowaway, Michael. Michael is quickly revealed to be the nicest man on Earth – an orphan who is raising his younger sister as he puts himself through a Masters degree. Michael’s first instinct, once he’s over the initial “Oh dear, I’m in space,” is to throw himself into every aspect of keeping the ship running that he can, immediately offering himself up for any grunt work. Anderson puts in a heartfelt performance, managing the difficult task of believably running the gamut of emotions that come with discovering that your dream has come true at the expense of leaving a dependent behind.
But he’s not the only one pulling his weight on board the ship or among the cast. Toni Colette (allowed to speak in her own accent for once) is reliably fantastic as the mission’s commander, Barnett, and hides panic below pragmatism perfectly. Daniel Dae Kim plays David Kim, a scientist preparing plant and algae cultures to facilitate the colonisation of Mars and does so with tragic forced dispassion. Rounding off the crew is Anna Kendrick in a strong performance of possibly the weakest written character, Levenson, a wide eyed doctor on her first trip into space. The film puts some heavy emotional beats on Levenson and, credit to her, she more or less carries them despite something lacking in their development.
The film is structurally tight and knows how to keep the balance between moments of space disaster and introspective character building. Though some of the more personal elements come off a little contrived, they always have enough truth in them to hit hard when they need to. Likewise with the series of disasters which compound with very poor fortune, as the plot progresses toward the inevitable hail-Mary attempt at keeping them all alive. Luckily, these rarely feel overstated as the film marches inexorably on.
...not quite as bleak as Arctic and not as showy or philosophical as Gravity...
What does sometimes feel a little overstated is the score by Volker Bertelmann which generally hits the notes of cold isolation perfectly but still feels the need to swell strings to awkwardly signpost the odd emotional beat. It's not often intrusive, but it's also not particularly characterful giving some scenes a strange flatness.
Stowaway is presented with an aspect ratio of 2.35 : 1 which both creates the usual nice cinematic feeling in the comfort of your own home for those with lovely projection set-ups but also adds a little to the confinement of the setting when viewed on smaller screens. It's also presented in HD with 5.1 sound because Netflix whims are what they are. Nevertheless, and in part due to the stripped down nature of the film, picture quality never feels noticeably lacking.
It’s a good hard SF plot – stick around for a goodly number of impressive sounding consultants in the end credits – which only tries to do what it knows it can succeed at. That acknowledgment of its limitations, from its compact cast to its judicial use of set lighting, to its small-scale space disaster action is a strength and allows the actors to do the heavy lifting. Ultimately, it’s not quite as bleak as Arctic and not as showy or philosophical as Gravity, but the issues it brings – ethics, morality, self-determinism – make for an appropriately engrossing two hours of space-bound tension.
Now, when’s the release date for this film about surviving inside a volcano I keep hearing about?
Stowaway is available to stream now on Netflix.
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