The crew of three dock with their starship to Mars, pop the hatch on their shiny, white, aluminum alloy and glass space ship and busy themselves with firing it up to make another trip to the Red Planet, and overcoming motion sickness.
It’s a complex “cycler” craft, generating artificial gravity by tethering and rotating the nearly-spent booster to their Mars transport craft, to which their command module has attached itself.
There was a “discrepancy” in their launch trajectory, something Hyperion, the private enterprise launching this ship noted and kind of played down, as does the crew — Mission Commander Marina Barnett (Toni Colette), phycologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim) on board to do botanical research on Mars, and ship’s physician Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) — in their post-departure TV press conference.
But those drops on a command module floor Barnett spies aren’t motor oil. And when she pops the overhead compartment open, a bloodied body tumbles out, their “discrepancy” in the flesh, a “Stowaway.”
This film from Joe Penna (he did “Arctic,” a solid survival action pic with Mads Mikkelsen) is pretty good…for a Netflix science fiction film. It’s nobody’s idea of a theater-packing knuckle-biting thriller, a somewhat ponderous but predictably emotional Anna Kendrick vehicle.
Somehow, this launch tech (Shamier Anderson) was jammed up into a crawl space, unconscious, during liftoff. He’s badly hurt, but survives. His injury is directly connected to damage to their life support system. On a two year mission, that’s a problem.
How this happened is rather like explaining time travel in sci-fi films on that subject. A “Let’s not dwell on that” attitude is practiced because this scenario doesn’t stand up to a lot of scrutiny.
Is this guy a Doctor Smith in “Lost in Space” fan? Was this intentional? Sabotage? At the very least, what’s it say about the company running the show that this sort of thing could happen?
But the melodrama takes on a different shape in Joe Penna’s tense, matter-of-life-and-death thriller.
Like “The Martian” and “Gravity,” this is sci-fi built on pathos, chemistry and math. The newly-expanded crew faces a “custom of the sea” level survival dilemma. And despite having Ivy League scientists on board, and the best low-bidder contractors (never seen) working the problem on the ground, there is no Matt Damon here to “science the s–t” out of this.
Collette is well-cast as a seasoned professional who can’t let emotions get in the way of decisions, but is also only human. Kim brings a rational and qualified competence to his role, a man more suited to the lab than to heroics in a space suit.
Kendrick’s Dr. Zoe is the real case of on-the-nose casting — cute and bubbly about her first trip into space, signing on because “you never know where life is gonna take you,” and an instantly empathetic doctor who never for a second lets her new patient see any doubt in her interactions with him.
Anderson’s Michael is more thinly developed. If Zoe is meant to be the audience’s emotional surrogate here, Michael is a simple collection of back story “needs.” He wakes up and “needs” to go back, to be with his sister, etc. He is never more than excess baggage, somebody the others are responsible for and someone they recognize as source and solution to their dilemma.
“Stowaway” has some impressive (enough) space travel footage and space travel science, although little time is spent on the nature of the “cycler” spacecraft, Hyperion, which launched it or the state of the Mars colony they’ll reach — eventually. Or so they hope.
There’s real suspense in the central dilemma and in the Hail Mary efforts to think and work their way out of this. But thin character development and slow pacing render this slower and soapier than one would wish.
A decent enough if dullish outing, it simply lacks the highs and lows of the recent benchmarks in the genre — “Gravity” and “The Martian.”
Cast: Toni Collette, Anna Kendrick, Daniel Kae Kim, Shamier Anderson
MPA Rating: TV-MA, bloody injuries, profanity
Credits: Directed by Joe Penna, Ryan Morrison. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:56