STOWAWAY (2021) – Quiet Science Fiction Movie Tells Tale of Impossible Human Choice

STOWAWAY (2021), a new Netflix movie by director/writer Joe Penna, is a compelling science fiction drama that is both well-written and well-acted by its four principal players, making this slow-burn space tale a worthy diversion for a rainy spring evening.

Just make sure you have some tissues handy. The story it tells is not a cheery one.

While nowhere near as claustrophobic or as riveting as the Sandra Bullock space drama from a few years back, GRAVITY (2013), it does strive for that same vibe, and it certainly takes its space science just as seriously.

STOWAWAY tells the tale of three astronauts, Commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), scientist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim) and medical doctor Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) on their way to a two year mission to Mars. Shortly into their voyage, they make the startling discovery that a stowaway is on board, as they find the injured unconscious body of a man Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson). When Michael awakes, he tells them that he is a pre-launch engineer who was injured before lift-off and was knocked unconscious.

Once they verify Michael’s story with the officials back on Earth, and accept that he poses no threat, they welcome him on board and begin to find ways for him to help them on their mission, and for a brief while all is well, until Commander Barnett makes the discovery that due to some damage to their oxygen distributors, they do not have enough oxygen for four people on board to make it to Mars. The scientists on Earth tell Barnett that there is only one option, and it’s a grim one.

When she tells David and Zoe, Zoe pushes back hard and demands that they try every method possible to find a way to get enough oxygen so they can all survive, and Barnett eventually agrees, setting up the dramatic third act of the movie where they attempt to find a solution, before their oxygen runs out.

I really liked STOWAWAY. I went in with zero expectations and found the movie to be a solid science fiction tale that held my interest for its nearly two hour running time. Even with its slow-burn pace, I still enjoyed it, mostly because the four main actors in the film are all excellent.

I’m a big fan of Anna Kendrick, and her medical doctor character Zoe pretty much emerges as the central character in the movie. Kendrick doesn’t disappoint in the role. She possesses a strong can-do attitude that is infectious, even in the face of overwhelming odds. She refuses to give up. Kendrick has made a ton of movies, and what I like best about her performances is that she easily goes back and forth between comedic and dramatic roles. The last movie I saw her in was the comedy/thriller A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018) in which she co-starred with Blake Lively.

Daniel Dae Kim is solid as scientist David Kim. He is the pragmatist of the group and argues often with Zoe that if they don’t take the drastic step recommended by the scientists back on Earth, they run the risk that all of them will die. And even though their characters don’t share any romantic connection, Kim and Kendrick share a nice camaraderie and chemistry in this one that makes their scenes together some of the best in the movie.

Kim has also been in a bunch of things, but I still think of him as Jin-Soo Kwon on the classic TV series LOST (2004-2010). He more recently starred in the TV series reboot HAWAII FIVE-0 (2010-2017) and is currently starring in the TV series NEW AMSTERDAM.

Toni Collette is also excellent as Commander Barnett, the person responsible for making all the tough calls. The stress visibly wears on her throughout the movie. Collette of course is known for her roles in THE SIXTH SENSE (1998) and LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006). She also starred in the hit horror movie HEREDITARY (2018).

Rounding out the cast is Shamier Anderson as the accidental stowaway Michael Adams. Anderson is very good here, making Michael a sincere and sympathetic character, which only adds to the drama, since he is the person who by his simply not being part of the mission is the first to be considered expendable.

Director Joe Penna keeps this one tight and sets up some very dramatic sequences. One of the best and most grueling is the sequence where Zoe and David attempt a 400 meter climb to attempt to extract oxygen from an unlikely source.

Sure, this one is a slow burn. So don’t expect a riveting exciting science fiction thriller. That’s not what STOWAWAY is. Instead, it’s a compelling science fiction drama, and it works, because the screenplay by director Penna and Ryan Morrison doesn’t try to sensationalize anything. It simply tells the story of four people caught in an impossible situation, and follows their attempts to do something about it. And they know there isn’t much they can do, and so a lot of the story focuses on the angst which follows these folks as they deal with this realization. And when they do find an opportunity, they know it’s their only shot, adding even more pressure to an already volatile situation.

But it’s not an edge of your seat melodrama where the moviemakers try to manipulate their audience. Instead, it’s a quiet drama which takes place in space that covers the painful decision-making process of four people faced with a choice no one should have to make.

STOWAWAY is a science fiction movie that ultimately succeeds because it gets the human elements right.

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