Stowaway suffers from a contrived script and poor character-building, but works considerably better when maximizing its budget in service of action spectacle.
A three-person mission to Mars, one in which every detail down to the grammage of coffee mugs has been accounted for, discovers an engineer passed out in a sealed compartment mid-flight. Add to this development a piece of faulty equipment that threatens the now inadequate oxygen supply, and the situation looks dire. These life or death stakes of Joe Penna’s Stowaway share DNA with his feature debut Arctic, the frosty survival thriller anchored by a scraggly Mads Mikkelsen which made a splash at Cannes 2018 and revealed rawness in a director whose filmography is rooted in aggravatingly wholesome YouTube videos. With Arctic, Penna struck a nerve by pulling an aching performance from Mikkelsen that charged his otherwise paint-by-numbers story with unsettling power. In Stowaway, he attempts to bring the act to a sci-fi setting by having a Toni Collette-led crew face insurmountable odds on their journey to Mars. While his minimalist survival thriller formula still works, the expanded cast, setting, and runtime exacerbate its limitations.
We meet the crew in a brief bit of quiet before the bad news hits. Commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), physician-scientist Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick), and research biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim) have an easy-going albeit professional rapport. Meanwhile, it’s a delight to hear Collette, after decades of playing Americans, endow Barnett with her native Aussie twang. It’s unfortunate, then, that the titular stowaway Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson), inadvertently breaks Barnett’s arm, keeping her (and the prohibitively expensive actress) out of the action set-pieces to follow. Penna does make great use of Collette in the scenes she has, and in one of the most moving moments of the film, her steely-eyed commander has an emotional rupture while talking to mission control all while hopelessness sets in. Sadly, as the “and Toni Collette” billing confirms, this isn’t her show to run, and we’re left to wonder what could have been if she were the focal point here a la Mikkelsen in Arctic.
Instead, the emotional heft is distributed evenly between the crew, with varying degrees of success. This is where Stowaway drags the most, its stiff script bearing the hallmarks of a screenplay workshop — obtrusive monologues serve as shorthand for character building and stop the movie dead. Anderson’s Michael might have been thrilling on arrival, capturing the frenzy of a man waking up in space, but his talents can’t contend with the flat “I was in an apartment fire…” acting exercise he has to deliver over weepy music halfway through. Penna and writing partner Ryan Morrison should have trusted their actors more, as some of these heavy-handed contrivances undercut the otherwise gripping naturalism of their performances. It doesn’t help that so much of these backstory drops are filmed in drab, uninspired close-ups, with nothing but the antiseptic spaceship environs to draw the eye.
Luckily, Stowaway comes alive whenever it pivots from its overwrought psychology to the action at hand. The launch sequence opener is a great example of Penna finessing a small budget. The camera floats through the rumbling cockpit, pressed up to Zoe in her orange spacesuit, upright in her seat but horizontal in the frame. The crackly voice of mission control belts the countdown instructions as the set quakes all around, and the camera quickly swings down to her side, exposing a chunk of window behind her with clouds flashing through an all gray sky. We don’t get an establishing shot until we’re in space, and yet this sequence, propelled by little more than a shaky aesthetic and precise sound design, is exhilarating. This same economical approach applies to the predictable hail-Mary mission that David and Zoe mount in an attempt to secure enough oxygen: Penna strings together a handful of simple studio tricks, shifting perspectives, and peppers in just enough CGI, to craft an epic spacewalk that punches far above its budget’s weight-class. This massive set-piece, which forms the bulk of the film’s latter half, is invigorating and recaptures some of the spark from Arctic in its urgency and raw tension. If the contrived script, with its halfhearted gestures at ethics and low-rent character building, falls short, then it’s this brute competence from Penna, buttressed by the charismatic cast, that mostly manages to save the day.
You can currently stream Joe Penna’s Stowaway on Netflix beginning on April 23.