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Review: Stowaway – “Excels at putting a new space spin on an old ethical dilemma”

Space, the final frontier. It has held a fascination with us since the beginning of time, and that wonder seems especially renewed as we look to the first human steps on Mars as the next ‘giant leap for mankind.’ So it makes sense that the film industry follows suit with new stories of space exploration beyond the moon that seem based more in scientific reality than science fiction. In Stowaway, director Joe Penna, who helmed the 2018 film Arctic which starred Mads Mikkelsen as a man trying to survive the elements, takes another look at what it means to survive, this time amongst the stars.

Marina Barnett (Toni Collette, using her native Australian accent) is on her last mission in space, but it’s a long one. The veteran astronaut is undertaking a two-year trip to Mars, and leading a crew rounded out by scientists Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) and David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim). It’s clear the two scientists are new to space exploration, with David getting motion sickness during the initial stages of the flight, but their training kicks in once they dock with their long-term vessel, and the trio get down to setting up a new home and initiating their research.

But early into their flight Marina finds a drop of blood on the floor. When she investigates she finds someone trapped, unconscious and injured, amongst the inner workings of the ship, revealing a damaged carbon dioxide eliminator. Zoe heals the man, Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson), a structural engineer who was never meant to be there, however, their CO2 scrubber is irreparable. With limited resources to support a now four-man crew, and a two-year mission ahead of them, they are left with the ultimate moral dilemma.

Anyone who has ever taken a philosophy class, or watched The Good Place for that matter, will recognize their predicament as a variant of ‘the Trolley Problem’. In its basic version, there is a runaway train car barrelling down the tracks straight towards a group of five people who are unable to move. However, if you switch a lever, you can re-direct the trolley towards one person. You can in essence choose the fate of the one person, but save the lives of five. And in Stowaway this is exactly what happens – with only enough oxygen left for three people to get to Mars, they are left with a decision about whether they sacrifice their stowaway, or risk the lives of everyone on board.

Stowaway is a stripped-back space narrative that is more drama than sci-fi.  Minus some special effects-laden spacewalks close to the end, the film feels almost like a stage play. The four main characters revolve around one another, revealing one another’s true moral compass. You are never introduced to others back on Earth except through conversation between the crew on the ship – not David’s wife, not Michael’s sister. Even when Collette’s character converses with ground control you hear only her side of the conversation, an interesting decision in the storytelling that I personally loved. Written by Penna and Ryan Morrison (who also co-wrote Arctic), it’s clear the duo thrive on stories of survival and isolation, and they keep these four characters decidedly alone.

With all of the focus on the character building, it is our luck then that the talented cast is fantastic. Collette is unsurprisingly dependable and believable here as the captain of this crew, especially as she begins to unravel with the weighty decisions on her shoulders. Anna Kendrick and Daniel Dae Kim produce effective performances here as well. But it’s Toronto native Shamier Anderson (brother of Stephan James who recently starred in 21 Bridges with the late Chadwick Boseman) who breathes the most emotional life into Stowaway. While he’s the outsider amongst the crew he is certainly the most compelling to watch.

Stowaway is a slow burn of a film – probably too slow for someone expecting an action-packed space adventure. It is not that sort of film. It’s a drama amongst the backdrop of space, a character study on its way to Mars. Stowaway excels at putting a new space spin on an old ethical dilemma. It’s a shame then, that all of this potential and build-up is wasted in an abrupt and unsatisfying ending that falls prey to the melodrama it, to that point, did well avoiding. Still, Stowaway offers an intriguing premise and enough great work from its cast to get on board and enjoy the ride. Just don’t expect to feel terribly fulfilled at the end of the mission.

Stowaway is currently available via Netflix in most countries, save for Canada where it is available through Amazon Prime.

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