Review: Anna Kendrick is lost, and found, in space in smart sci-fi ‘Stowaway’
Near the end of Robert Zemeckis’ “Contact,” Jodie Foster — her enormous eyes full of the things of the universe — gasps out the famous line: “They should have sent a poet.” But a facility with iambic pentameter is not what’s needed when the quandaries you face, sealed in a cigar tube half a million miles up in the sky, are more ethical than metaphysical: In Joe Penna’s restrained and ruthlessly rational sci-fi “Stowaway,” they should have sent a moral philosopher.
Of course, even Immanuel Kant would consume oxygen — or he would have in his day — and so he too would only have contributed to the problems that beset the crew of the Kingfisher, a two-year, three-person mission to Mars, which goes awry just hours out from Earth.
This near-future is far enough away that Martian commutes are somewhat frequent, and it’s not just cute little rovers like Perseverance trundling across the Red Planet’s surface. This is the third trip to the nascent Martian colony for commander Marina Barrett (an impressive if underwritten Toni Collette). But it’s also near enough that the practicalities of interplanetary travel are much the same as they are right now. This is not the science fiction of hyperdrives and teleportation hubs: amid Marco Bittner’s nicely pre-owned, scuffed production design, using tech that looks more Apollo 11 than USS Enterprise, Barrett and her crew endure a shuddering launch and a rattling, jangling exit through the ionosphere.
Aside from a mysterious but not mission-fatal overuse of fuel, the launch is a success, even if biologist David (an excellent Daniel Dae Kim) loses his lunch, to the concealed amusement of medical researcher Zoe (an understated but ultimately very moving Anna Kendrick). Soon, Kingfisher docks with a small space station to continue its months-long journey, and Barrett reports back to mission control — an entity known as Hyperion whose end of the conversation, in a nice touch, we never properly hear, enhancing the sense of the crew’s extreme remove from the rest of humanity.
Meanwhile David and Zoe, scientists chosen from thousands of applicants to help make the Mars colony fit for long-term human habitation, get to work stashing their supplies and gently ribbing each other over their Harvard/Yale rivalry. Such is the harmonious everyday industry of ordinary astronauts making an exciting but not unprecedented journey, until an unconscious, bleeding stranger falls from a roof panel, injuring Barrett and damaging the craft’s crucial carbon dioxide scrubber.
The unwitting stowaway is Hyperion engineer Michael (a lovely, soulful turn from Shamier Anderson), and in this otherwise scrupulously logical film’s one big roll of the credibility dice, we’re asked to believe that his prone, wounded form, tangled up in the workings of the rocket he’d been inspecting, could have lain undiscovered throughout the prep and lift-off process. Better not to think about it and move on, because once Michael brings the on-board population to four, and the life support unit is found to be beyond repair, the real stakes of Penna and co-writer Ryan Morrison’s screenplay kick in.
“Stowaway” is essentially a feature-length version of the Trolley Problem — the Philosophy 101 thought experiment that asks whether it’s moral to intervene in a calamitous situation in such a way that one person dies instead of many or if intervention itself is immoral if it results in a person’s death.
The sinuous but unshowy camerawork from Klemens Becker; the clever sound design, which makes as much use of sudden, stunning deep-space silences as of Hauschka‘s superb, vaguely sonar-influenced score; the warm but understated performance from all four actors, filling out characters that the laconic, dialogue-light script only sketchily outlines — all of this fine, muted craft may come as a surprise to those who still know Penna best from his anarchic YouTube channel, on which one of the most viewed uploads is his kazoo-and-slide-whistle cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” All these choices, along with the sedate, slow-burn pacing — which may well disappoint those hoping for a more rollicking ride — make “Stowaway” an unusually low-key and cerebral sci-fi adventure.
This isn’t to put it in the company of more metaphysical movie marvels like “2001,” “Solaris,” “High Life” and two-thirds of Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine.” Instead, the film lives somewhere between “Gravity,” (which also seems to have influenced Penna’s first film, 2018’s “Arctic” with Mads Mikkelsen) minus the ravishing velvet blackness of its immense imagery, and “The Martian,” minus the chatty affability of Matt Damon’s stranded potato farmer. Certainly, it has more on its mind than space monster movies like “Aliens” or “Life” or that other third of “Sunshine.”
Even Hyperion, despite the EvilCorpTM ring to its name, turns out not so villainous, just terribly, cosmically distant. This also means Penna and Morrison’s usefully spartan story gets to avoid even accidentally commenting on current hot-button politics around private, for-profit space exploration, with its distinctive Musk of exclusivity and dubious accountability.
Here, there are no villains, just the cruel inhospitality of space, dumb luck and the different taxonomies of heroism, decency and sacrifice that the Kingfisher crew members represent. And yet just when you worry the film is nothing but inner struggles between principle and pragmatism — an angstronaut epic, if you will — Penna contrives a visceral tether-climb space-walk sequence that delivers us into the final act squirming with secondhand anxiety.
Paradoxically, as “Stowaway” becomes more overtly thrilling, it becomes less interesting, certainly to those of us nerds who are in it for the moral relativism arguments and the cool science. For all I know, that science may have MIT wonks hooting in derision, but when it offhandedly imagines a whole artificial gravity system, involving a module tethered to a dead rocket, spinning so fast that the Earth rises and sets a few times every minute, it sure passes the sniff test of the armchair astrophysicist with solar-flared colors.
And for the most part, aside from a slightly slack start, and its stirring but simplistic ending, that kind of well-researched procedural detail is what makes Penna’s film such an engrossing and surprisingly touching addition to a genre already bursting with splashier, more extravagant and more overtly sentimental titles. Without God metaphors or grandiosity or the threat of some sort of global extinction event to power it — without even sending a poet — “Stowaway” sets a small story in the bigness of space, and so brings space just a little bit closer to home.
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
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