“I’m only telling you this because I need you to be mentally prepared for what’s gonna happen.”
Ever since Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity debuted in 2013, the science-fiction film genre has seen a significant increase in dramatic output, with films like The Martian and Interstellar taking the baton with much gusto and enthusiasm. These tense, dramatic, character-driven films have tapped into a new vein of dramatic filmmaking, relying on similar story and filming techniques that television dramas have been utilising for box or bottle episodes of their series (where all of the action is confined to one space for a full episode) to deliver new stories in the depths of space. Stowaway is the latest entry in this new vein of sci-fi drama.
The three person crew of a two year mission to Mars aboard the MTS-42, on route to conduct experiments that will help transform Mars into a habitable planet for Earth, discover that launch support engineer Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson) has accidentally stowed away on board after an accident before launch which rendered him unconscious. His accident also damages the ship’s life support unit, resulting in the ship only having enough oxygen supply to keep 3 people alive for the duration of the journey – and begins a frantic attempt to find a solution that won’t result in anybody’s death.
Director Joe Penna has assembled an incredible cast for this piece; alongside Shamier Anderson are Toni Collette as ship’s captain Marina Barnett, Daniel Dae Kim as biologist David Kim, and Anna Kendrick as ship’s doctor and researcher Zoe Levenson. Casting is key for a film like this; as while there is certainly opportunity to impress with the set designs and the effects required to realistically create the beautiful void of space; the performances are what drive a film of this nature, and they do it incredibly well here. The story is a high-risk, high-stress scenario from start to finish; with the crew delving to the depths of their knowledge both of their chosen fields and of the workings of their ship to try and identify a way to keep everyone on board alive. Toni Collette takes the chance to demonstrate again why she is an Academy award winner, bringing a stoic determination and level-headedness to Captain Barnett that demonstrates her experience and skill as a captain, but also allows us to see the frustration involved in taking literal life or death decisions in an environment that reduces support in that decision making. Barnett tries to keep her anger and frustration to herself, mostly letting it manifest when she is alone, and gathering herself with a cooler head when addressing the rest of the crew; which cannot be said for David Kim.
Daniel Dae Kim also does great work portraying this deeply conflicted character; a biologist who has dedicated years of his life preparing edible flora that can be grown on Mars, who is repeatedly asked to put that research at risk to take measures that will keep the whole crew alive. His frustration is understandable, but manifests in some quite alarming behaviour, and Kim brings a heavyweight portrayal that keeps the audience connected to him emotionally, even at his most outright villainous points, by balancing his actions against the emotional turmoil that results in those aforementioned actions and provides an insight into the conflict between completing his life’s work, and safeguarding the life of a man who should not be there. He brings us through a character redemption arc in a way that does not truly redeem his actions, but does allow us to feel the weight of the guilt for what he has done before and generate an emotional response unlike anything I have felt from a film in a long time.
Shamier Anderson shines bright as the titular stowaway, a man who has a lot less time to process a great many more emotions than his unexpected crewmates. His emotional response when he discovers he’s on board the ship after launch is frantic; an immediate blast of panic and fear that is incredibly effective in a naturalistic display of a terrified train of thought. As we learn more about Michael, his story becomes even more difficult, and Anderson brings a quiet resolve to Michael that remains consistent throughout the narrative, underlying his actions as he adapts to his circumstances; be he assisting David Kim with his research, to desperately trying to learn the skills needed to help the crew find a solution that will keep them all alive. Even at the times of the greatest desperation, Michael never really turns to anger; and it’s a credit both to Penna’s direction and Anderson’s performance that we see more sadness and grief from a man whose life is on the line, especially given the actions of his crewmates…
Last, but certainly not least, we have Anna Kendrick as Zoe Levenson. Levenson is the most brazen about the crew needing to find a solution to keeping all four travellers alive for the duration of the journey, something which fits with her medical training; and Kendrick brings a lot of passion and anger out of Levenson for that fight. The transformation from the joking, fun-loving researcher who we meet at the beginning of the film to the furious and desperate doctor who takes control as the search for a solution becomes more desperate is incredible, and is almost reflective of Kendrick’s own presence in this film, after years of being more readily associated with comedy work (with a few notable exceptions, such as 2018’s A Simple Favor). Kendrick’s determination, rage and grief all manifest frequently during the narrative, and her consistent volunteering to undertake incredibly dangerous measures to try and keep everyone alive set her apart from the rest of the crew’s grief surrounding the perceived inevitable loss of life required to make the most of the dire straits which they find themselves in. Levenson’s character arc is a driving force for the central story as a result, and Kendrick bolsters that weight in triumphant fashion, putting in a potentially career-defining performance which could see her being regarded in a whole new light as a dramatic actor, and Penna should be credited for casting her in a role that really brought the absolute best out of her, in a dramatic range that most may not have expected from her.
Joe Penna has added a great film to his already noteworthy body of work with Stowaway; and his directing style is perfectly suited to this environment. The body of the of MTS-42 lends itself readily to close-up shots of the crew, which is key for fully capturing the complex range of emotions each actor is portraying at any one time; and the minimalistic sets highlight when there are more obvious pops of colour, such as inside David Kim’s research lab. As the room with the most artificial light (given the crops being grown in there), it provides a perfect, stark contrast when one of the film’s most hopeless scenes takes place within it; the crew bathed in light as their chances of survival seem to be slipping through their fingers. Likewise, the darkest room on the ship is the one with the greatest feeling of hope; a section that has been reinforced to protect the ship from the damaging effect of solar storms, that also has a window that looks straight back at Earth, gradually growing smaller as they continue on their great adventure towards the future. These tight, enclosed spaces are then brilliantly juxtaposed when the action takes itself outside of the ship; with the vast expanse of space around the enormous vessel feeling particularly cold and punishing, while still carrying a sense of beauty – even (and especially) at its most perilous. The physical and special effects teams have gone to great work to realise this juxtaposition between the narrow ship interior and the endless void of outer space; and their work is further complemented by the beautiful soundtrack from Volker Bertelmann, which really comes into its own during the outer space sequences; making great use of swelling reed and string sections to enhance the emotions of the crew as they embark on a dangerous attempt to save their own lives.
Stowaway immediately established itself as one of my favourite new films so far this year. With award-worthy performances from the entire cast, a unique and dramatic premise brought to life both by Joe Penna’s direction and the incredible script from Penna and Ryan Morrsion, and incredible effects and soundtrack, this film is worth every second of your time. A tense, gripping and emotional character drama that asserts its worthiness amongst the increasingly popular subgenre of dramatic science fiction, I would encourage everyone to take this film in via whatever medium it is available to you – though, as always, I recommend you watch it on the biggest screen that is safely available to you.