A Mars expedition faces hard science and even harder choices
Stowaway, a slender but dense galactic drama of hard science and even harder choices, turns a mission to Mars into a kill-or-be-killed reckoning. Three passengers form the crew of H.A.R.P., the Hyperion Academic Research Program, which recruits fancy-college brainiacs to oversee off-Earth lab experiments. And when systems fail, they’re forced to problem-solve a fatal situation. It’s Russian-Roulette trouble-shooting. Think Apollo 13, but with a body count.
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Among the Ivy-League-educated: medical researcher Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick), and biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim). She’s from Yale, he’s from Harvard, they trade barbs accordingly. Commanding the ship is stern, no-nonsense Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), the adult in the room and the only seasoned astronaut among them.
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Joe Penna
Written by: Joe Penna, Ryan Morrison
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Daniel Dae Kim, Shamier Anderson, Toni Collette
Running time: 116 min
After escaping Earth’s gravitational pull, they find a fourth: concussed Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson). He’s an accidental tourist, an inexperienced launch support engineer knocked unconscious during his pre-launch work. And his discovery in a ceiling access panel inadvertently frazzles the ship’s CDRA, which scrubs away their carbon dioxide and keeps them from suffocating. The ship was technically constructed for two passengers, but Hyperion tweaked the design to allow for a third. Four people? Someone’s gotta go.
Simple but hardly simplistic, Stowaway dares to focus its entire plot on a moral dilemma: when someone must die in order for others to live, who makes that decision? And what are the consequences of that sacrifice? Joe Penna’s uncluttered sci-fi spectacle, stripped of embellishment, spartan like its vessel, feels more like a short story. No surprise: it’s very similar to the classic 1954 sci-fi short story ‘The Cold Equations.’ This film isn’t some expansive, grandiose, epic take on the human condition. It’s a what-if conundrum posing as futuristic chamber piece. And it’s a primer on sacrifice.
The first half of Stowaway takes place entirely in the ship’s handful of airlock chambers. It’s claustrophobic, and Penna knows it. In a bravura opening sequence, the director stays inside the cockpit for the entire launch sequence. No showboating big-dick rocket blast-offs here; we only get to see the crew’s faces, neophytes Zoe and David alternately thrilled and horrified, shaken and stirred in the convulsing, shuddering machine. David even tosses his cookies into a vomit bag. And then they both experience weightlessness for the first time, their wonder feeling genuinely fresh.
Another small but striking tweak: Penna shows the crew talking with Mission Control, but only lets us hear one side of the conversation—like an interstellar Bob Newhart routine, but without the laughs. We only hear their responses, forcing us to scramble and figure out the rest. It’s a shrewd way to amp the tension. Penna knows about existential dread, and seems to be making a career out of it. In his debut film Arctic, he strands plane-crash victim Mads Mikkelsen in brutal, subzero weather. This is a filmmaker drawn to the dramatic extremes of survival at all costs.
The film’s pacing is initially slow, capturing the tedium of space travel but also the slow-burn torture of struggling with their fates. And then, in a stomach-sinking second half, the trio decide that their only hope is a harrowing, Hail-Mary space walk. Still tethered to their rotating command module is a distant launch vehicle that helps counterweight their artificial gravity. Picture a twirling baton, except with solar panels in the middle, and you get the gist of the generated centrifugal force at either end.
There’s a chance the launch vehicle might still have liquid oxygen in its tanks, if it didn’t burn it all up during their take-off. They won’t know until they get out there—clawing their way along a cable to escape the gravity at one end, then free-floating until the other end’s gravity starts pulling them down with greater intensity and velocity. Oh, by the way, if anyone even touches those solar panels, it could cause a catastrophic failure that irreparably shuts down their power and ends their mission—as well as all their lives.
Stowaway takes its space exploration seriously: mechanical malfunctions and overlooked technical factors are par for the course. The real question is how that impacts our humanity. And if the future of our species relies on terraforming, it also requires preserving nobility, humility, generosity of spirit, perseverance, purpose, community, and a shared sense of duty. It’s a bracing reminder of what civilization really is.