This year has been quite short on sci-fi offerings outside of “Godzilla vs. Kong” and “Voyagers”, but it seems every calendar year brings us at least one thought-provoking space adventure and Netflix’s “Stowaway” does its best to fill that role for 2021. The story features an extremely small cast consisting of three crew members, Captain Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), medical researcher Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) and biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim), traveling aboard a ship on its way to a colony on Mars. However, within the first 12 hours of their voyage they discover a launch plan engineer and stowaway named Michael (Shamier Anderson) whose discovery inadvertently leads to damage to the ship’s life support systems. The result leaves the now-four-man crew with only enough reserve oxygen for three people forcing the crew into a difficult situation to either sacrifice one of their own to survive the trip or to figure out a way around their limited resources. This dramatic sci-fi thriller has proven to be quite divisive among critics and viewers with its value determined mostly by how seriously you take the science and story versus the theming and performances.
I’ll admit that immediately after watching “Stowaway” I found myself in love with the film mesmerized by its powerful ideas and challenging conflict as well as the captivating performances by the only four actors on screen. But then I took some time and really thought about what I just saw I realized as much as I enjoyed this film it’s far from flawless and leaves viewers with a more analytical minds with more questions than answers. First though, let me explain why I liked it. “Stowaway” has a pretty basic theme at its core: what would you do if you found out the only way to survive was to sacrifice an innocent? It’s a hard question presented to us through three good natured astronauts who are quickly established as kind and friendly people before they are faced with a no-win situation after their life support system is compromised and an unexpected passenger, who they embrace as one of their own, is discovered on board.
I think all the actors deserve props for handling this difficult scenario with tact and complexity. Their reactions show very different angles of how someone could handle a situation. In a subtle moment we hear Captain Barnett offer to take Michael’s place as the sacrifice early on but is told “no” by her superiors on Earth. David Kim offers Michael a way out through a painless shot deciding not to do it himself but allow Michael to make the choice, and Michael has to juggle whether his life is worth the other three people on board. Anna Kedrick’s Zoe doesn’t want Michael or anyone to die. She believes in waiting the maximum length of time to try and find a solution that will benefit everyone. All are very different ways of reacting to such a terrible scenario and they all feel convincingly human and force the viewer into a great “what would you do” mentality. Every character is put in a position where their actions and decisions could be questioned but none are painted as villainous. They’re just desperate people looking for an easy solution to an impossible question in the worst place to have to be saddled with this conflict, a confined small ship in deep space.
However, this is where I start to see the flaws in the film. For one the conclusion of the movie and resolution to the conflict felt a bit rushed and I wasn’t completely satisfied with how the final ten minutes play out. It wasn’t the ending I wanted nor did it feel earned. That’s because as much as I love this movie it seems to have a hard time with its focus. We spend almost the entire first half of the movie on character development, learning who these three astronauts are and then bringing Michael into the picture and learning about him. At the halfway point the drama of their scenario starts to kick in and from there the tone shifts from a grounded slow burn to a thrilling race against time. I actually found the second half to be quite entertaining providing edge-of-your-seat scenarios that genuinely had me rooting for the astronauts to get things done and in a hurry. However, the focus shifts so drastically away from character development that things start to fall into more cliched territory even upping the stakes to force the crew to take even more desperate measures than they were already daring. The story is always about keeping everyone alive but halfway through shifts away from the more daring questions of why to the more basic question of how thus taking the narrative from a more human experience to a more thrilling one. It ALMOST works but doesn’t quite stick the landing.
There’s also plenty of holes in the logic of the story which is where more analytical minds have torn this movie apart in fan reviews. We don’t actually figure out why or how Michael got on board the ship nor is the fact that he wasn’t detected during quality control ever resolved. The lack of failsafes and backup plans for such chaotic situations as a mechanical malfunction of any life support system seems ridiculous considering the astronauts work for a clearly well-funded company that could never have been let in space without redundancies. Hell, spaceships we launch TODAY aren’t launched without backup plans to the backup plans. So if you take this movie that seriously and dig into the logic of the science, or lack thereof, that results in the scenario falling apart pretty quickly making the science in this science fiction movie feel more like a means to an end than a thought out narrative tool. On the other hand if you can turn your brain off and lose yourself in a grounded story about people just trying to survive in a no-win situation there’s plenty of substance to be found once you get to the literal heart of the human narrative. It should be remembered that this is, after all, science FICTION so not everything NEEDS to make sense…although it certainly helps when it does.
It’s true that “Stowaway” is a mixed bag. A lot of the flawed science and skipsin logic do leave holes in the story that make the film easy to tear apart, but if you can get beyond that there’s plenty of heart at the core with four great actors portraying relatable human beings stuck in a horrifying no-win scenario that none of us would enjoy. While it’s slow burn pacing might get on some people’s nerves, I never found myself uninvested mostly because I liked these characters. I wanted to see how they would react and who would and/or wouldn’t survive and why. It’s also visually beautiful and satisfied my craving for a space-themed sci-fi drama with actual substance. Is it perfect? Absolutely not and I can understand the mixed reception. But I’d still highly recommend it as I found it to be just as engrossing as many other similar sci-fi dramas of the past and in the end it proved to be thought provoking well past the credits, for better or worse. That’s good enough for me to recommend.