Starring: Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air), Daniel Dae Kim (Raya and the Last Dragon), Shamier Anderson (Wynonna Earp), Toni Collette (Hereditary)
Director: Joe Penna (Arctic)
Writers: Joe Penna & Ryan Morrison (Arctic)
Runtime: 1 hour 56 minutes
Release Date: 22nd April (Netflix)
The best science fiction always has a quandary at the centre of its premise. Whether philosophical, scientific, social or any other area of thought, they are narrative experiments that explore what if scenarios that can reflect our reality or hypothesize new ones. Stowaway is very much a classic example of this, exploring the age-old moral question of “can we value one life over others?” The final answer this film presents is solid but underwhelming, resulting in a film held together mainly by its splendid cast and one incredibly tense set piece.
Stowaway sits comfortable between the slow-burn contemplation of films like Silent Running and Ad Astra and the high drama thrills of Gravity and The Martian, though it certainly leans more towards the former. It has a small enough cast and a scenario so basic it could be staged as a play without losing too much of its dramatic heft. It takes about a quarter of the way through its runtime before the central hook takes hold, and from then on, the story tightly focuses on solving the ethical conundrum presented by its titular stowaway. The film does an admirable job of demonstrating the emotional weight of the problems this variable raises, but unfortunately the drama remains pretty subdued and unexciting for the most part. The conflict, whilst perhaps more genuine, is tepid by cinematic standards and leaves much of the second act feeling dry.
Thankfully, the movie finally hits its peak in the third act with an incredibly thrilling sequence as two of our astronauts are forced to climb across the delicate hull of their ship. There’s a palpable intensity and fear present here that just isn’t present anywhere else in the film and, whilst certainly not on the same scale as Alfonso Cuaron’s aforementioned space thriller, manages to invoke a similar sense of existential dread. The final payoff of the premise is sadly too expected, answering its question in a way that makes much of the preceding story feel like filler, but it at least manages to get in a few moments of excitement before it comes to its perfunctory conclusion.
Any good bottle story relies on the dynamics of the trapped characters and, whilst Stowaway definitely has a stellar cast, the people they are tasked with playing are far less so. The biggest flaw in this regard is in how it treats its titular character Michael (Shamier Anderson). Another movie might have made him the central character, but too often he’s treated more like a prop than a human being, which works counteractively to the emotional core of the story. It certainly doesn’t help that Anderson, whilst delivering a solid performance with what little material he has, pales in comparison to the rest of the cast. Anna Kendrick is instead the film’s nominal lead as optimistic doctor Zoe, and her buoyant but grounded performance easily makes her the most relatable of the bunch, but her arc still feels somewhat underdeveloped.
Toni Collette is as brilliant as ever as ship captain Marina but she too is a little lacking in depth, mainly tasked with providing exposition and being frustrated by the off-screen ground team. The most dynamic and interesting performance easily comes from Daniel Dae Kim as biologist David, who brings a much-needed intensity to the most tepid proceedings. A weaker film would have easily turned him into an antagonist, but Kim grounds his character with motivations and backstory that justify his more questionable behaviour. He steals every scene he’s in, and is yet another example of how underrated Kim is as an actor.
Whilst no formal budget has been made public, Stowaway is certainly working with a lot less money than most of its contemporaries, but it makes good use of what it has. The small and claustrophobic nature of its spacecraft setting is simple but well-realised, with a lot of long takes that float across the whole set emphasising how cramped it really is. The special effects are refreshingly minimal but are more than effective, with the aforesaid third-act set piece being the main venue where they take centre stage, whilst the score by Hauschka isn’t particularly standout but does effectively evoke the film’s solemn yet hopeful mood.
Stowaway is the definition of a serviceable film: engaging and competently-made enough to watch, but lacking anything that really makes it stand out. It’s far from a waste of time and it has moments where it truly comes to life, but it’s hard to recommend when there are so many similar but better films out there that are just as easy to watch. To put it simply: if this movie was trapped on a spaceship with Gravity, The Martian and Ad Astra, and I had to sacrifice one to save the others, I would shoot Stowaway out of the airlock in a heartbeat. I’d feel pretty sad and guilty about it, but it would be the only obvious choice.
FINAL VERDICT: 6/10