Stowaway takes place in a familiar setting: a small crew launched into space is forced to deal with the meaning of their existence, while facing a terrifyingly uncaring void.
Directed by Joe Penna, this film—while not the first one to do so—is commendable for its unflinching focus on one specific ethical dilemma: the trolley problem. Specifically, a spaceship’s passengers (Toni Collette, Anna Kendrick and Daniel Dae Kim) are plunged into a horrifying conundrum when a fourth person (Shamier Anderson) accidentally becomes the eponymous stowaway and, because of damage to the air filtration systems, they realise there’s only enough oxygen for three of them to survive.
At the heart of Stowaway are incredible performances by the entire cast. Collette, finally acting in her native Australian accent, steps into the role of the leader with ease. One of the finest actors working today, she is flawless in her depiction of commander Marina: a conflicted, yet reassuring presence. Kendrick, meanwhile, always brings energy and charisma to the screen, making her stand out even in the smallest role. Here she shines as Zoe, the heart of the crew, a young medical researcher eager to find meaning in her life. In the face of the crew’s unsolvable problem, her emotional range succeeds in giving the viewer hope—even when they have no reason to feel it. She also develops the film’s most interesting relationship with biologist David (Kim), a more severe and rational type. Their differences in approaching the central ethical question are fascinating, with his more practical efforts complementing her bravery. But the film could not work without Shamier Anderson’s brilliant depiction of Michael, the unlucky engineer who gets dragged along for the ride. In particular, his first moments of panic and shock engage the viewer not only with the mission but with his journey specifically, from unexpected addition to dangerous burden.
The film is immediately immersive, from the first scene depicting the claustrophobic take-off, to the tension of the third act in open space. The cinematography and framing are especially effective at depicting the chilling void: the screen is frequently overtaken by profound darkness, with the characters often relegated to the corners, mirroring the physical insignificance of humans in space. This changes with the bittersweet conclusion of one character’s arc: their face is front and centre, as they finally find their significance in the universe.
There is one condition that will affect the engagement of some viewers: as with most Netflix films, Stowaway is not available in theatres. In the last year, audiences have gotten used to watching big blockbuster films on their computer screens. However, this does not mean that a slower and more immersive film like Stowaway will escape unscathed. From the cinematography to the gripping ethical questions, this movie would be better experienced in the quiet attention—and in front of the much bigger screen—of a cinema. While this does not impact the quality of the film, it may well hinder the average viewer’s enjoyment of it.
Despite the focus on the central ‘trolley problem’ being a strong point of the film, the script by Penna and co-writer Ryan Morrison is not without its faults. Certain aspects of the plot—later revealed to be crucial to the ending—could have been set up in a clearer way, while simultaneously employing less standard-issue exposition. This impacts the film’s pacing, with too much time seemingly spent on scenes that feel less important than others. Though some of the slower sections give the viewer some welcome time to appreciate the characters, they might be a drawback for those not inherently interested in life in space. The crew’s daily tasks are not flashy nor jaw-dropping: they do not go on improbable explorations, or grow potatoes on Mars. In that sense, this is a grounded approach to the sci-fi genre that won’t appeal to everyone. In addition, some of the nuance provided by the acting is not supplemented by the writing. For instance, while the captain’s conversations with the base discussing Michael’s future are some of the most compelling scenes, not much thematic relevance is given to the company that is sending them on the expedition.
Nonetheless, this is a worthy addition to the Netflix catalogue. Stowaway features brilliant performances, which are allowed to shine due to the simplicity of the story. However, its confinement to streaming platforms will render the pacing issues more difficult to bear.
Stowaway might be a familiar (and flawed) watch for sci-fi aficionados, but it will still capture viewers through its stunning visuals and stellar acting.
Words By Elisabetta Pulcini
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