I love director Joe Penna’s work. I hate, hate, HATE Stowaway. Let’s get into that.
When I heard Joe Penna (Arctic, Beyond) was directing a science fiction film for Netflix, I was pretty stoked. When I heard it had a stacked cast with Toni Collette, Daniel Dae Kim, Shamier Anderson and Anna Kendrick, I was completely onboard. Everything sounded great: the premise, the cast, the director…and then I watched it.
Stowaway has a few of the brilliant flashes that made Penna’s other works so damn good. The cast does a solid job, especially Daniel Dae Kim in a morally compromised role. The film just is so filled with manufactured drama and bone-headed science that I left the film ready to tear my hair out.
A three-person crew on a mission to Mars faces an impossible choice when an unplanned passenger jeopardizes the lives of everyone on board.
First, Some Praise.
Let’s get the good stuff out of the way. I really like the cast. The script puts them in awkward or problematic positions, but they take it in stride and turn out great performances. Toni Collette plays the commander, and while the script literally handicaps her right out the gate, she plays her role with grit and resolve. Anna Kendrick is the medical officer who is a bit naive, but quickly shows she’s the moral backbone of the crew. Shamier Anderson is the unfortunate stowaway who is mostly reduced to a pawn on a chessboard he has very little control over. Still, he gives an emotionally powerful performance.
My favorite was Daniel Dae Kim as a botanist forced to blow up his dreams in order to eek out as much survivability from the ship as possible. I thought the script was doing him dirty, but Kim gives a powerful speech at the end revealing just how much emotional torture each “cold” decision he is forced to make puts him through.
The cinematography is good – beautiful and austere like Penna’s other feature, Arctic. While that film leveraged isolation for much of its aesthetic, Stowaway leverages claustrophobia and sterility. There are several novel effects for events like solar radiation that I liked a lot.
Now, I Have to Cut You.
So. On to the bad stuff. Going from small to large:
- I think the script did the cast no favors. It almost reduces them to single note characters. The commander role is to make tough revelations, and that’s that. The doctor is there for optimism. The botanist for cold calculated rationality. And worst, the stowaway is just kinda emotional baggage, a plot device to trigger the action. It really feels gross that he’s reduced to an object that the others have to work around, despite the fact that he’s an engineer and was planning on applying for future missions to Mars.
- Obvious machinations. So much of the drama in this drama comes from situations that you can see coming a long way off. People have to make bad decisions or have inexplicable lapses (or get things literally dropped on them) for the tension to work, and it’s manipulative.
- Who the hell signed off on this mission?! The biggest sore spot I had, the straw that broke the camel’s back is just how mind-bogglingly bad the design is for the mission and the ship. It’s so bad, I need to break this down even further:
- Spin to Win. Spinning the vessel to create false gravity is not a new sci-fi idea. You usually see a ring or sphere shape as a result, so the outer walls become the floor. Here, we get the galaxy-brained idea to have the two major parts of the ship swinging at the end of tethers like a bola. This is monumentally stupid. Any slight shift in either end is going to either shake the thing apart or send it spiraling off course. This is not insignificant since one end of the bola is THE FUCKING ENGINE which contains UNBURNT PROPELLANT. Any micro-meteoroid pings that fucker and kiss your ass goodbye.
- Having the ship attached by tethers is likewise idiotic. One of the tethers carries the voltage from the solar array, so brushing it or damaging it is death. The other tethers have no way to scale them except by a physically punishing system of ratchets. Better hope to god you don’t need to get to the arrays or the engine late in the mission where lack of exercise will have atrophied your muscles, regardless of false gravity.
Oh, and by the way…how are you planning on stopping this spinning nightmare? Unless your landing plans include “plow right into the fucking planet” you’re going to need to slow down at some point…and your engine is way the hell over there across a deadly chasm with no elevator and is spinning like Tonya Harding. Good fucking luck.
- NO BACKUPS. Early in the flight, the stowaway’s unconscious body rips out a wire and causes the CO2 scrubber to fail and the room he’s in to be depressurized. Not only does this endanger the oxygen and carbon dioxide mix, but it also makes it impossible for the crew to exercise as that’s somehow tied to the same circuitry. So, double whammy.
O2 and CO2 issues are very well understood by NASA. You may have remembered a little mission called Apollo 13 where those issues became very important. Yet here there’s no back up system and no work around. There’s no bloody way in hell any mission traveling for two years would not have redundancies for this very issue right out the wazoo.
There’s so much fundamentally wrong about just the mechanics of the mission that I almost bit through my tongue watching it. It’s a total clusterfuck of bad design, and it becomes readily apparent due to the other scripted manipulations that this crazy old tub is FUBAR just for the sake of drama. Add in an ending that completely hand-waves away the remaining 90% of the mission and I was thoroughly disgusted with the movie. Stowaway has problems of its own makings just so it can seem deep spoon-feeding you the prepared solutions, all trying to get me emotionally invested in this disaster. I’m not buying it.