Into the Void
Stowaway is streaming on Netflix
Life is fragile. It’s easy to forget that on an average day. Last Thursday, for example, many of us were at work, spending time with kids, looking at cat pictures online, trying to get a COVID-19 vaccine, and wondering if it’s too late to order a pizza. For many of us, last Thursday was the last day of our lives.
If regular life on our planet carries with it a certain sense of risk, then a life lived in the stars is insanely, ludicrously dangerous. I have a great deal of respect for people who choose to assume risk in order to protect others or advance human knowledge. My respect for astronauts is off the frickin’ charts.
Consider that an astronaut first needs to undergo a battery of physical, mental, and emotional tests. Then years’ worth of training. Then they sit on a rocket that utilizes millions of pounds of thrust* and hurls them out of the atmosphere at speeds approaching 18,000 miles per hour. After that, they might go to the International Space Station, where the walls are primarily made of aluminum and are 1/10th of an inch thick.
Space is an unforgiving environment. So much so that the geniuses at NASA and other associated agencies spend years figuring out procedures to deal with what Donald Rumsfeld used to call the known knowns and known unknowns. There will inevitably be unforeseen problems, and the new hard science-fiction film Stowaway examines how problem-solving collides with ethics when those problems occur.
In the not too distant future, a crewed mission to Mars blasts off. Aboard the spacecraft is commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim), and medical specialist Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick). They’re intelligent, focused, and totally prepared for a two-year journey to the Red Planet.
Make that, “almost totally prepared.” Maybe I’m not giving NASA enough credit, but I’m pretty sure there’s no seminar covering what to do when a dude crashes through a hatch in the ceiling, because that’s what happens. The aforementioned dude is Michael Adams, a stupendously unlucky launch support technician who was somehow knocked unconscious prior to launch and was somehow totally overlooked during the final safety checks.
Michael’s rotten luck spreads rather quickly. Can they just pull a U-turn and drop Michael off on Earth? No, because the spacecraft doesn’t have enough fuel. Luckily, there’s enough food for all four of them, and despite the tight quarters becoming tighter, they make do. As traumatized as he is, Michael wants to pull his own weight, and he assists David with experiments using algae to create oxygen.
Remember how I mentioned rotten luck earlier? It turns out that when Michael fell out of the hatch, he irreparably damaged the CDRA, a doohickey that removes carbon dioxide from the spacecraft. Making matters worse, half of David’s algae samples die. That means there’s just enough oxygen to support the survival of only three people. Now the crew is saddled with a nightmarish dilemma — who deserves to live?
I’m a fan of competency porn, in which smart and capable people must problem-solve their way out of terrible situations. I’m also a fan of seeing how characters deal with those situations when ethics complicate matters. Given this film and his previous film Arctic, director Joe Penna is carving out a niche as the thoughtful survival adventure guy. He runs into some issues with the pace dragging,** and I think cutting a few minutes here and there would have solved them. However, Penna took the time to boost the verisimilitude*** with the crew and their surroundings. That attention to detail is appreciated, and gives his film additional weight.
As far as the screenplay goes, Penna and co-writer Ryan Morrison have written a mostly effective tale. Time is mostly spent watching our characters deal with escalating crises, and we learn about them based on how they individually react to everything. I like that, but I felt that a little more detail could have been given to flesh them out as people. For example, there’s a good scene between David and Michael where David’s love of jazz tells us more about who he is. While I appreciated that, I still knew virtually nothing about Commander Marina Barnett, other than the fact that she’s in charge.
The sleight of hand filmmakers use if their characters are a little thin is to cast strong and likable actors, and allow the performances to fill in the blanks. So you get pros like Toni Collette and Daniel Dae Kim. They excel at playing intelligent and proficient people, and remember to drop the veneer of competency to show us the terrified human being behind it. I liked Anna Kendrick as the warm and fiercely moral Zoe. Shamier Anderson took a role that could have easily been played as either incompetent or hysterical, and made Michael an intelligent guy making the best of a rotten situation.
Stowaway doesn’t have the relentless intensity of Gravity, the puckish humor of The Martian, or the practical optimism of Apollo 13. What it does have is a willingness to ask truly unpleasant questions, and not in the guise of pointless provocation, but to see the best of humanity in the worst-case scenario.
*While researching these factoids, I came across possibly my favorite “People also ask” question on Google. It was, “Can a rocket launch kill you?” Oh, yes, it can and it will kill you!
**I don’t believe it has anything to do with the claustrophobic setting. Phone Booth, despite having a protagonist stuck in one location, moves like a rocket.
***With the exception of the part where a guy is stuck in a hatch unbeknownst to everyone.