In Brazilian writer-director Joe Penna's Stowaway, now streaming on Netflix, Toni Collette plays Marina Barnett, the commander of a crew of three that's just blasting off on a mission to Mars. The film is set in an undefined near future, when we Earthlings have already taken a few strides forward in colonising our neighbour.
However, soon after launch, they discover that somehow, they have an injured, unconscious man on board who was never a part of the original plan. In discovering him, they also end up damaging a critical component of their life-support system. It means that the ship just won't have the oxygen to sustain four people on its two-year journey all the way to Mars.
Minimalist in not just its visual treatment, but also with its character complexity and drama, Stowaway masquerades as a sci-fi thriller for quite a bit, but the film is really about the tough choices that a trained space-crew has to make about their unexpected eponymous stowaway, if they have to have any chance of simply getting to Mars, forget about successfully completing their mission. Barnett and the other two crew members " biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim) and medical researcher Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) " have to figure out if there's any way they can manage with this extra passenger, even though deep down they know that there probably is nothing they can do about it. It's not like they can just turn around and drop him back on Earth.
The film's biggest asset is undoubtedly its four-person cast. The incredibly Toni Collette plays the commander with the kind of world-weary gravitas we've come to expect of her. Anna Kendrick, with her earnest American charm, plays the conscience-keeper of the group, and you're almost always rooting for her.
Daniel Dae Kim gets perhaps the most layered storyline among all " his biologist David, who's spent years researching on algae and intends to culture them on Mars, has to put his life's work on the line for a stranger. The quandary he finds himself in is a genuinely intriguing one. Can you always find it in you to give up the very meaning of your own life, in order to save or spare the life of another? The film, however, isn't able to dig really deep into this kind of moral dilemma.
It could have been a searing character study or a tight, gripping thriller, but Stowaway finds itself somewhere in the middle. Penna gives us a slow-burn space drama, something I found myself appreciating often while following the characters literally and emotionally (with long takes of them walking through the pathways of their constricted spaceship as well as navigating their own emotional predicament). Yet, beyond a point, the gentle exposition becomes too gentle for its own good.
Ironically, one of the most unpredictable things about the film is that it actually ends up largely following the beats that you would expect with such a story. At its core, the film is some version of the trolley problem, so the exact same story could really have been set in any closed, constricted setting " a remote mine or a research vessel in a deep-ocean trench for instance. Space, with all its glorious metaphor and mystery, seems only incidental to the story (even though you get the sense that Penna really put thought into designing his film the way it is.)
The film gives you passing information about the three crew members and the stowaway Michael (an affable Shamier Anderson). Yet, it just doesn't open them up for us to fully discover. Barnett is visibly a great commander, but why? Zoe is an eternal optimist, but why? Michael is clearly out of his depth in this situation, but what does this unexpected excursion really mean to him? The film barely skims through all of this, in favour of a sense of larger purpose with its space setting. But it also leaves you in familiar territory visually, because there isn't much in this film that you haven't seen before. (Alfonso Cuaron's 2013 film Gravity springs to mind instantly, but there are plenty more films to choose from).
I suspect the film would have made for a much better big-screen watch, because this would have helped it with its ambition of being immersive and gripping at least emotionally, if not intellectually. The choices the crew are faced with, at a philosophical level, seem to be impossible ones. But in a movie, you almost always know how it's going to play out. There is a certain artistic integrity in the film that I couldn't help appreciating. Still, clocking in at just under two hours, the film doesn't leave you reeling with existential angst the way it would have liked to.
Rating: 2.5 (out of 5 stars)