Director: Joe Penna
Stars: Anna Kendrick, Toni Collette, Daniel Dae Kim
I recently watched Al Reinert’s extraordinary 1989 documentary For All Mankind, which makes exceptional use of actual video diaries from NASA’s astronauts as they make a pioneering journey out of our gravity on a mission to the moon. Landmark moments are captured with the feel of a family holiday. One of the more humorous – and most human – elements is how often mission control has to remind their crew to stop monkeying around and get back to work.
The workmanlike aspect is definitely felt in Joe Penna’s new sci-fi drama for Sony Pictures which has washed up on Netflix this week. A three person crew launches into space. Destination: Mars. Their vertical ascent is tense; the aftermath is, briefly, giddy. But there’s still a sense of work-to-be-one. A mix of the extraordinary and the everyday.
Australian Commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette) is flanked by Americans Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) and David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim). They vlog for the folks back home (shortcut exposition, hello!) and add their names to the signatures already adorning the walls inside the spacecraft – a lived-in legacy.
But, as the title suggests, they’re not alone in the infinite. Concealed in an overhead compartment, the wounded and concussed Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson) literally crashes the party, compromising the mission and the thin veil of safety keeping the astronauts alive. If you’ve ever fallen asleep on public transport you can imagine Michael’s sense of alarm and discombobulation. Now imagine that train or bus is on a 2-year round trip…
Penna’s admirable fidelity to making space travel seem pedestrian recalls those human moments from For All Mankind, but often cancels out any sense of the exceptional. Without a sense of urgency, Stowaway‘s 117 minutes feel baggy and more than a little plodding. The handsome production design means that it all looks the part, but these space-age aesthetics can’t sustain the piece by themselves, especially as they can be found elsewhere in more dynamic packages. Volker Bertelmann’s score tries to intermittently up the pulse of the piece… but without any pursuant energy in the unfolding drama.
The concept initially feels inherently ludicrous, especially considering the grounded sensibility. I can’t imagine the weight discrepancy wouldn’t have been registered somehow, for instance. Michael’s inevitable impact on the supplies/consumption for a three-person mission does eventually enter the conversation – engendering the moral dilemma that is sustained for the remainder of the piece – but it takes a surprising amount of time for this to happen. Stowaway seems eager to maintain a casual mood overall. It’s as though Penna is reaching for the darkly investigative soul-searching of Bergman or Tarkovsky while simultaneously fighting it off. Fearful of getting bogged down… he coasts. Ladies and gentlemen we are floundering in space.
Or are we…?
Collette makes a believable pragmatist of Marina, while Zoe is established as the conscience of the group and Kendrick plays this nicely. The actor’s underseen background in mumblecore pays dividends here. Actually, all four cast members handle themselves well, in-keeping with the relative quietude of tone.
Netflix has perhaps misrepresented Penna’s film, hoping to pull people in with the false-promise of action or disaster movie thrills. Even a second-act EVA is rendered as more of a procedural suspense sequence than something to get your heart rate up. While the ending opts for a note of elegiac quietude that may leave viewers feeling adrift.
So forget the immediate kineticism of Gravity. Instead, the reality of Stowaway is that of a far more inquisitive human drama with an old-school genre mentality redolent of original-run Twilight Zone or the heyday of short-story sci-fi in print periodicals. When approached from this perspective, Penna’s film is a sturdy (if slightly weightless) extrapolation of a classic moral conundrum.