Netflix's Space Weepie 'Stowaway' Struggles to Achieve Lift Off
Anna Kendrick stars in this technically impressive yet inert Netflix original movie.
Where the famous docking sequence in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey presented the mechanics of space travel as an interstellar waltz, showcasing the movements of machines over the strings of "The Blue Danube," the opening of Stowaway, Netflix's latest science-fiction adventure film, frames space travel as a symphony of jargon. Chatter between the home base of Hyperion, the private company sponsoring the Mars mission, and the ship's eagle-eyed commander Marina (Toni Collete) plays out as the vessel's two other known passengers, medical doctor Zoe (Anna Kendrick) and biologist David (Daniel Dae Kim), ready their fragile stomachs for landing. There's little poetry or beauty to be found; instead, exploring the cosmos is all business—and nausea.
Filmmaker Joe Penna, who directed 2018's Mads Mikkelsen-against-the-elements survival narrative Arctic, rarely wavers from this slightly clinical, painstakingly logical approach. In the early stages, when the movie is still sketching out the details of life on the cramped station, Zoe and David are established via their Ivy League educational backgrounds. (Zoe went to Harvard; David is a Yale man.) It's certainly intentional that the two scientists scan more as embodiments of their LinkedIn profiles or their resumes than their actual personalities, but the effect is more grating than insightful. The characters are as squeaky-clean as the sterile environment they move through.
When the titular stowaway, a Hyperion engineer named Michael (Shamier Anderson), makes his presence known by falling through the ceiling, knocked out and bleeding, you spring to attention. At last, here's the tension-filled disruption that will power the rest of the movie! And while that's certainly true—Michael's arrival kicks off a series of technical mishaps, routine adjustments, and resource challenges that drive the plot—the specific way Michael influences the story feels oddly fumbled. (This isn't exactly a spoiler, but if you're super-sensitive to plot reveals, maybe skip the next two paragraphs.) Any mystery about his motive or the circumstances surrounding his appearance on the ship are dealt with quickly and efficiently: He's a nice, kind man with a tragic backstory who ended up on the ship because of an accident. That's about it.
In certain ways, this is a refreshing and surprising twist. A more conventional stowaway thriller would involve Michael potentially being a double-agent staged by Hyperion or a saboteur sent by a rebellious political faction. Still, as much as you want to commend Penna and co-writer Ryan Morrison for zigging where others might zag, the path they choose to go down, a slow-burn morality play centered around the ethics of self-sacrifice and the headache of executing complicated ship repairs, fails to achieve lift off. The storytelling has a grim logic to it, and the actors sell the stress of the wrenching decisions they have to make, but too many mishaps and incidents feel scrupulously reverse-engineered to create a surprisingly minimal amount of tension. As suspense should be rising, the film's restraint becomes a liability.
Like last year's George Clooney Netflix science-fiction snooze The Midnight Sky, Stowaway is indebted to Alfonso Cuaron's Oscar-winning Gravity, arguably the most influential space weepie of the last decade. (It also shares a bit of The Martian's can-do DNA.) With its strong cast and tight pace, Stowaway is better than Clooney's more ungainly movie, which couldn't decide what type of po-faced parable it wanted to be, but it still suffers from a sense of creative austerity. Gravity stripped away the excess of the space movie, telling a gripping survival story with dazzling visual inventiveness and emotional intensity. A movie like Stowaway lacks sex, romance, spirituality, philosophy, or, perhaps most crucially, a real sense of adventure. Though it might be accurate in its portrait of space travel, that might not be enough to make the journey—or the barf bag—worth the trouble.