Joe Penna’s Stowaway (2021) channels its attention on a disquieting moral dilemma, captured by four solid performances that craft more than the thin plot has in store.
NASA’s profile on Instagram presents a fair share of posts which exhibit smiling people in astronaut suits. Scroll more, or tap into one of their live sessions, and you’ll get a sneak peek into a space base, or even witness a spacewalk. Judging by this one example one could say that modern technology has shortened the distance between space and us, hitherto unknown. Add SpaceX to the equation, and the sci-fi genre is no longer so strange and mystical.
Hence I’d argue that the sci-fi genre might require a revamp as a whole. Think about it. Spacewalks are no longer a thing – although Stowaway (2021) offers incredibly filmed moments of dread in the vast of space – while showing off an alien won’t guarantee hordes of fans on the instant.
If reality touches on the cosmos more and more often, filmmakers will need to adapt albeit Joe Penna, whose previous endeavor Arctic (2018) was a visceral survival drama, chose the traditional, beaten path. Blizzards and snowstorms were replaced with intricate corridors of spaceship’s guts and the overwhelming blackness of space with blinding lights beaming from afar.
Stowaway (2021) finds three spacemen – Captain Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), and her two crew members, Zoe Levinson (Anna Kendrick) and David Kim (Daniel Day Kim). From scene one, the three are locked inside the tin can, shot into the sky and toward a base that they’re supposed to inhabit for two years.
Upon docking their spaceship, an unprecedented discovery shakes the crew to the core. Where some would expect an alien’s wrongdoing that ravaged the previous crew, Joe Penna turns away from the main road. The fare dodger is every bit of a human who somehow got stuck in the ship’s air vent. Zoe immediately take scare of the shocked individual, but only after Michael (Shamier Anderson) settles in, the real danger looms over the crew – severely depleted oxygen supplies that won’t keep everyone alive until the ship arrives at their destination point on Mars.
Frankly, cosmic survival tales rarely deploy something as down-to-Earth as lack of oxygen to be the main threat. Sure, it’s a way to further worsen an already woeful situation, but Penna makes it ghastly, even more than extraterrestrials hunting people and vitiating their spacecraft. The decision to sacrifice one for the good of the others isn’t easy, and becomes the bone of contention between two opposing sides.
One side is represented by a joint effort of David and Captain Barnett. Toni Collette’s Barnett, although somehow marginal in the big picture, is the only link connecting the base with the on-Earth headquarters. Constantly on the line, and stuck alone with repressed emotions, Barnett does her best to be up to the task as the commanding officer. Collette, who astonishes with a phenomenal range of colorful, strong characters, feels withdrawn and contemplative.
David, portrayed by Daniel Dae Kim, remains loyal to his captain, although the motif driving this character – years-long research that’s about to go down the drain – marks a less credible part of the script of Stowaway (2021).
Zoe, on the other hand, is the noble knight among them. Anna Kendrick’s charm translates into heartfelt honesty that makes the actress an instant audience winner. Naturally, Zoe’s less of a scientist and more of a Samaritan type who sees Michael as a human being and not luggage to be dropped or not. Kendrick and Anderson establish the emotional front, and that drives Joe Penna’s film. While everyone tries to find a way out – give it countless calls with the HQ, or experiments with algae (lots of them by the way) – it’s Zoe who heroically either tries to teach the third wheel ‘Being A Spaceman 101’ or takes on the most preposterously dangerous path.
Stowaway (2021) evolves at its own, organic pace, however unfit for dynamic space tales. Drama’s heavy; fills the room and consumes its own oxygen, weighing on each pair of shoulders in an equal measure. Forget the spaciousness of Interstellar (2014), but welcome markings of Sunshine (2007) or Moon (2009). Penna directs in a deep respect for the unforgiving, lifeless space, which means there’s no miracle at the end of the road.
Where Stowaway (2021) does frequently stumble is the sense of progress. As the crew arrives at the point of no return, Penna and his co-writer Ryan Morrison develop multiple scenes that result in the same outcome. Stretched across its two-hour-long timeline, Stowaway (2021) could have used a bit of trimming-the-fat; fat that honestly isn’t all fun and explosions, but lots of misused slow cinema bits.
Nevertheless, when we arrive at the third act, Joe Penna proves his keen eye and craft. Suddenly, the film earns its thriller category title, nailing its spacewalk sequence and an ending that effortlessly swims in elan. In spite of the cost of the slow beginnings, Stowaway (2021) eventually transpires to be a curious addition to the modern sci-fi canvas. Even if there’s no life out there, there are for sure dangers to our fragile existence.