Within a week of the first-ever aircraft launched from the surface of Mars, and all the minutiae involved in achieving such a feat, Stowaway feels timely in its exploration of space flight not as an adventurous jaunt through the stars, but a painstaking game of calculus where there are absolutely zero margins for error. But in its essence, Stowaway isn’t really about a spaceship: it’s about a lifeboat and the human drama that unfolds when resources begin to run low, and unthinkable decisions must be made. It eschews the more fanciful science fiction elements, instead telling a simple story of survival and the power of empathy.
Three astronauts set off on a mission to Mars that will see them away from Earth for years. Barnett (Toni Collette, finally allowed to use her native Australian accent) is the veteran of the crew, kind but no-nonsense on what will be her final space command before retirement. David (Daniel Dae Kim) is a scientist, transporting with him plants, Matt Damon in The Martian style, to study on Mars. And finally, there’s Zoe (Anna Kendrick), a young, idealistic medical doctor to keep them safe along the way. This crew of three will be each other’s only company for quite some time, and they settle in for the long journey together—just the three of them.
That is until a stowaway (Shamier Anderson) turns up almost immediately after the shuttle launch. The reason he was somehow lodged in a panel near the life support system isn’t fully explored, but one thing is clear: his presence throws a wrench into their precisely calculated mission strategy. One massive system failure later, and they face the genuine question of whether this ship can support four people when it was only designed for three.
Stowaway does an incredible job from the very beginning of emphasizing their isolation and, therefore, their utter helplessness in the face of circumstances beyond their control. This is a film with only four characters: even when they communicate with Mission Control, we never actually hear their voices, just our protagonists’ response to them. For all intents and purposes, they may as well be alone in the world: no one can absolve them from the decision they must make.
Stowaway is, on some level, a morality play. What do we owe to one another as human beings? Is it acceptable to take one life if, in doing so, we save three others? There are no easy answers, but Stowaway treats all of its characters with tremendous empathy, regardless of how they mentally approach this classical moral dilemma. It does not judge them for the choices they make, and it’s a testament to both the writing and acting ability on display that we so keenly feel each character’s unique perspective.
If Stowaway has a flaw, it’s that it occasionally feels as though it could be a bit more tightly edited. A story like this requires a certain energy, but Stowaway is almost languid in parts, depriving it of a sense of urgency. It lacks the tension that likely could have been gained if it had a faster pace. The whole point of Stowaway is that the characters are rapidly running out of time, but the film itself doesn’t reflect that. With an almost two-hour runtime, they feel as though they have all the time in the world. Despite this, the third act seems truncated and poorly thought out, as Stowaway is creakily forced from ethical discussions to action. Not every story ends with a happy ending.
Still, although that’s arguably a weakness, it doesn’t have too great an impact on our enjoyment of Stowaway. The cast works well together, and their camaraderie feels genuine. There are little moments of kindness and humor that sell their relationship with one another and bring levity to what could otherwise be an incredibly downbeat film. It’s wonderful to see Daniel Dae Kim and Anna Kendrick get some meatier roles, Toni Collette is a delight as always, and Shamier Anderson is remarkable in his ability to immediately make us sympathize with him, making the question of survival aboard the ship even more heart-wrenching. Stowaway is a thinking man’s space adventure, and its approach to the high stakes of its ethical dilemma gives it both intelligence and heart.