Few genres are as reliably tense as “something goes wrong in space” movies. “There’s been a small mechanical problem” is a pricey nuisance if it is in your home but a fast-track to getting super dead if it is in your spaceship. Stowaway is bit less Apollo 13 or Gravity and a bit more “moral quandary,” albeit one that not-so-nimbly sidesteps thornier philosophical implications in favor of gratuitous astronaut crying. In space, no one can hear you emote.
Three of the four humans that appear in Stowaway are supposed to be where they are: Zoe (Anna Kendrick), a space doctor; David (Daniel Dae Kim), a space scientist; and Marina (Toni Collette), a space Australian (and mission commander). After a wonky launch, the trio settle in for their two-year Mars mission, only to find a surprise in one of the mechanical ducts. Michael (Shamier Anderson) was an engineer working on the ship when he fell and was knocked unconscious. Whoops, you go to Mars now!
Aside from giving Michael the absolute best excuse for missing all social engagements for 730 days, the accident wouldn’t have been that big of a deal. But, you know, “there’s been a small mechanical problem.” Awkward inconvenience soon becomes a morose mortality contemplation. Had the characters been given more “space” to reveal themselves, it could have been emotionally devastating. Instead, Stowaway is simply aggressively intense until it shudders to a morally convenient resolution. In space!
You’d think with a miniscule cast, the inner working of each oxygen-sucker would be laid bare. Nope! Each astronaut was given a strict, small allotment of weight for personal items they were allowed to bring with them on the ship. The same rule must have applied to their personalities. Other than hearing Michael has a sister and David has a wife, relationships outside the floating tin can are barely mentioned. Zoe’s personality is “makes jokes sometimes,” and Marina’s is “says some words louder than others.” Backstories are hinted at but never fleshed out. Algae is legitimately discussed in more detail than the lives at stake.
It’s not only fine but often compelling that Stowaway fixates on logistics. That’s part of the “fun” in the “something goes wrong in space” genre. Still, it does so at the cost of potentially saying something meaningful about comparing the value of human lives. We have no shortage of current real-world scenarios in which that calculation is callously done. Wait just a tiny while, and we’ll soon be doing the same math about earth’s oxygen-to-carbon-dioxide ratio. These are ugly, awful problems with messy, gross answers.
Stowaway doesn’t have anything substantive to add to the discussion so much as it knocks over a pitcher of water and runs away. Kendrick and company seemed game to take on more but aren’t given room to breathe. Sorry, space humor is too fun… As a simple sci-fi thinkpiece, it orbits “harmless” on its course to “totally fine.” If only it had set a more ambitious destination.
Grade = B-
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Robert Daniels at IGN says “Stowaway is shrewd in its decision-making and even better in its execution.”
Jennifer Heaton at Alternative Lens says “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.”
Sherin Nicole at Idobi says “One of the best themes in this film is that the large Black man is written as ‘the innocent’ and it is soft and unexpected and done with such empathy. That alone is worth a bravo.”