The filmmakers behind Stowaway, a new space-based suspense drama on Netflix, make a curious creative choice. The film places a team of astronauts in a life-or-death dilemma that requires them to radio Earth for help, but we never hear voices at mission control. This is presumably meant to build suspense and place the focus on the astronauts, but it also fills the film with disjointed … awkward … pauses.
That’s kind of a symbol for the film’s biggest problem. Perhaps ironically for the story of a spaceship blasting into space on an irrevocably accelerated course, Stowaway struggles to build momentum. More like slow away, am I right?
Toni Collette, Anna Kendrick, Daniel Dae Kim and Shamier Anderson star as astronauts, scientists and engineers involved in a two-year trip to Mars. But one of them isn’t meant to be aboard — and the ship isn’t designed for an extra person, setting the crew on a collision course with a horrifying decision.
The film opens with the crew blasting off, a scene that goes on long enough to evoke the feeling of real-time space travel. Which means it’s kind of boring. The terse dialogue reveals there’s some kind of problem but with little sense of danger to get the blood pumping. As the opening scene continues, 10 minutes of ponderous maneuvering and impenetrable acronyms becomes 15 minutes of not much happening and not even learning much about the characters.
This sets the tone for Stowaway. It’s subtle. It’s sparse. The camerawork is unhurried. The shots linger. The music glides and tingles. The production design builds a near-present-day spaceship that looks designed to be genuinely functional rather than creepy and cinematic. Even the most exciting moment is a painstaking, near-silent endurance test. The suspense sneaks up on you.
This ain’t Gravity or Event Horizon. Stowaway isn’t a roller coaster ride hurling intrepid astronauts through every hair-raising danger space can throw at them, and nor is it a riot of freakish histrionics as the crew tip over into madness. The danger of the situation invites you to wonder if one of the crew is going to flip out, but probably only because that’s what usually happens in this kind of movie (see). And Stowaway isn’t that kind of movie.
I’m of two minds about this sparse approach. On the one hand, writer Ryan Morrison and writer/director Joe Penna launch a refreshingly unhysterical take on space travel. Space-based thrillers often make you wonder, if a guy is going to flip out when the mission goes sideways, how did he even get to be an astronaut? The characters in Stowaway are satisfying rational, even when they’re making unpleasant choices. It’s closer toin that regard.
On the other hand, it’s hard to really invest in such minimally sketched characters. The film’s central problem is kind of a “what would you do” situation, but it’s not exactly a problem the vast majority of non-astronauts are ever going to face. The tension of the situation builds and builds as options are exhausted, but that can only go so far; ideally viewers need to connect with the characters to feel the weight of the decisions they face, but we’re told too little about their lives for them to truly feel like real people.
Instead of organically coming to life, the characters occasionally pause the movie to deliver a backstory monologue. Shamier Anderson in particular has little to do except be saintly. And in terms of relatability, getting pissy about Yale versus Harvard and being a dick about jazz are not the same as a personality.
Fortunately the cast do a lot with the subtleties. Anna Kendrick convincingly shifts from bubbly excitement to standing her ground on the hard choices. Daniel Dae Kim does so much with scenes in which his character realizes his life’s work is in danger. And Toni Collette as the mission commander does a huge amount of heavy lifting with the merest of tired looks. Nobody worries like Toni Collette.
It’s an intriguing paradox of space travel that astronauts seem to bob about gently while in fact moving insanely fast. We’re told the spaceship in Stowaway is moving at unstoppable speed, yet events unfold so slowly.
Stowaway offers glimpses of intriguing thoughts about the value of space travel, the nature of sacrifice and the responsibility individuals owe to the bigger picture, but they fall away like distant suns barely seen in the blackness of space. This measured and meditative suspense film makes a compelling change from schlockier entries in the astronaut-in-peril genre, no matter the gravity of the situation.