Film Review: Stowaway
Director: Joe Penna
Rise Pictures and Rainmaker Films
Streaming on Netflix 04.23
There was a point when astronaut movies were enough of a novelty that a movie like Space Cowboys was actually mildly entertaining. But it’s become such a prolific genre that the bar has been raised. And the latest from Netflix, the sci thriller Stowaway, falls well below expectations.
As you can probably guess, Stowaway takes place in the “near-future”—these movies always do—in a time when space exploration is a major priority again and the Kingfisher rocket blasts off from Earth, propelling the MTS-42 to yet-another manned mission to Mars. Leading the team is Marina Barnett (Toni Collette, Hereditary, I’m Thinking of Ending Things), the ship’s commander, on her third and final mission to the colony on the red planet. Joining her is medical researcher Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air, Pitch Perfect) and biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim, Hawaii 5-0, Raya and the Last Dragon), both accomplished academics chosen from thousands of applicants who’ve rigorously trained for a journey that will see them spend two years away from their loved ones.
In the course of their safety checks after docking at a miniature space station, Barnett makes a startling discovery: an unconscious man with his harness wrapped around a pipe attached to the CDRA (Carbon Dioxide Removal Assembly) life-support system. He literally falls from the ceiling. When he awakens, Michael (Shamier Anderson, Destroyer, Wynonna Earp), a member of the ground crew, must come to terms with being stuck in space for the next two years—unless, of course, there are even bigger concerns to consider. (Spoiler alert: There are.)
Director Joe Penna (Arctic) fails to imbue the film with any particular sense of style, but far worse is his inability to create a feeling of urgency in what should be a tense situation. There are a few reasons for this, one being that the script is so slapdash that it plays like a shorthand first draft. Important plot elements and big questions are never adequately addressed, and nothing whatsoever reaches a satisfactory resolution at any point. There’s also the inescapable feeling that this is a rather low-budget and low-effort piece of filmmaking. Sure, artificial gravity based on centripetal force is scientifically sound—it was even attempted in the Gemini 11 mission—but the bottom line of why it’s used in the film is that not having to deal with zero gravity made for a much cheaper and easier film to make, and it feels like a cheat.
It ruins any sense of excitement and wonder that we should be feeling, and there’s absolutely nothing about the sequences onboard the ship that feel more elaborate or expensive than a standard sitcom. As far as outside the ship is concerned, when we finally get there, the visual effects can most charitably be described as meager. In fact, if it wasn’t for the presence of recognizable stars, I would not have been at all surprised to learn that the film was made on a budget of $20,000 at the very most. However much was actually spent, boy did they not get their money’s worth out of it.
Kendrick puts a lot of enthusiasm into her role, and she’s such a strong, likable presence that she occasionally gets the movie close to achieving liftoff, but there’s only so much she can do. And when an actress the caliber of Toni Colette is giving nothing of substance, you’re just flat-out screwing up. Anderson is easy to like but distant, and she’s giving a confusing and woefully underdeveloped character. Kim is terrific, but again, only within the confines of what the sloppy story allows him to be. The screenplay, by Penna and Ryan Morrison, is just a slight variation on Tom Godwin’s 1965 classic science short story, “The Cold Equations,” and it’s almost insultingly predictable.
Stowaway is, to use a cooking metaphor, a strange mix of barely reheated leftovers and a main course that is underdone and nowhere near ready to be served. The end result is a movie that feels so shoddy and halfhearted that it shouldn’t have even been released, at all. There are plenty of worse movies out there, but a lot of them would actually be a more interesting use of your time. –Patrick Gibbs