Listen to this post:
As a filmmaker, Joe Penna is no stranger to stressful situations. His 2018 debut, Arctic, about a lone survivor stranded in the polar wasteland, is full of them. His follow-up, Stowaway, takes a similar story about isolation into another wasteland – outer space. The film follows three astronauts on a two-year mission to Mars. The crew consists of the ship’s commander, Marina (Toni Collette), biologist, David (Daniel Dae Kim), and medical doctor, Zoe (Anna Kendrick). Along their journey they discover an unconscious man locked behind a panel in the spacecraft.
It’s revealed the man, Michael (Shamier Anderson), is a launch support engineer who was accidentally left inside the ship. Once we get past the plausibility of him surviving the takeoff without an oxygen tank, we start wondering why and how he got stuck there. Our guess is foul play, but then we begin to think perhaps the aspiring astronaut set all this up on purpose. While the former is never addressed, the latter is quickly debunked.
As it turns out, Michael is a stand-up guy, and it’s clear that Penna really wants us to root for him throughout the story. We’re given a lot of the character’s backstory and told about his difficult upbringing. These days, the engineer is studying to be an astronaut himself, and has now been thrown into the deep end without the proper training. After overcoming the panic of being suddenly immersed in a two-year trip, he’s quickly excited at the new opportunity he never thought he would get. He’s living the dream for free, only at the potential cost of this mission, as we come to find out.
The other three underwent strenuous preparation and a rigorous vetting process to get their chance at the Mars mission. However, after a strange series of events (which we never become privy to), Michael just lucks into the opportunity. The others aren’t bitter about it and are surprisingly understanding of the peculiar situation, but as we come to find out, one added variable can change the environment catastrophically.
The added soul on board means oxygen levels, among other resources, are limited. Before they reach their destination, at least one of them will suffocate from the lack of air. The crew, along with mission control, tries everything possible to figure out a situation, but there’s nothing they can do. Marina and David believe the best thing to do is to kill Michael in some way, but Zoe is desperate to find a solution.
Keeping his story unpredictable the entire way, Penna subverts our expectations without ever playing with them. There are never any wild twists or chaotic conflict. The director never ventures into the typical thriller territory you think this setup would easily lend itself to. It’s clear what he thinks is right and wrong, but those moral leanings benefit the story even further, adding to the growing sense of despair needed for any sort of satisfying resolution. These aren’t themes told from an objective filmmaker, but we still see all sides of the argument.
In fact, Penna focuses more on these characters without pinning labels on them. And so issues don’t really arise over protagonist versus antagonist, rather showing different sides of a moral dilemma. Do the ends justify the means of getting there? Or should the focus be on taking all the necessary ethical steps with the hopes that the ends will turn out well regardless?
The writer-director structures this film almost identically to his previous endeavor, using seemingly the same blueprint for his beats. And much like Arctic, Penna gets us to the end of the functional story, but never on to the epilogue of the struggle. The final act in Stowaway may be disappointing for some who want to see our characters technically get to shore safely, or at least see the themes bookended better–most notably an ostensibly foreshadowing story Zoe tells Michael about saving a drunk man from drowning on a beach.
However, where the filmmaker really missteps is in his curious lack of explanation for why Michael was bolted into the ship’s interior in the first place. This is a detail that, no matter how satisfyingly the remainder of the plot unfolds, we can’t stop wondering about.
Also, while the domino effect of speculative scenarios is taken to its logical conclusion, there’s another question left unanswered, leaving yet another pebble in our shoe early on: we’re never told why the crew can’t turn the ship around. Perhaps someone with more expertise would know, but I’m guessing most audience members haven’t been to space (camp).
With less than fifteen spoken lines in his previous film, Stowaway is Penna’s chance to really show what he can do with dialogue. For the most part, he fills his script with thoughtful lines, even if he gets caught up in the realism of this esoteric world a bit too much at times. We know he’s not a fan of verbal exposition, and often doesn’t use it enough, but when he does it always makes sense logically for the situation and the characters.
The four actors are cast well in their roles, each standing out in his or her own way, all very effective at telling this story. Kendrick doesn’t go outside of her usual realm, but still grounds the film in a way that both the filmmaker and the audience majority can live through vicariously. Anderson, known for his television work on Wynonna Earp, provides a sympathetic victim and an entryway into the ironic horror of this scenario, with conflicting levels of pure excitement and extreme heartbreak, and does well on both counts.
Kim is perhaps the biggest surprise, never playing his role as either purely likable or completely detestable, but as worthy cases for both simultaneously, making his antagonistic traits disappointing for an audience who actually likes him despite them. Collette, also, plays both sides, but in a different way. While Kim’s character comes at this dilemma from a logical point of view, Collette’s decision has more to do with her role as the captain, as the entire responsibility of the mission rests on her shoulders. The actress always remembers that she’s in charge, inserting emotion sparingly, if not tentatively.
The Brazilian director began his career as Brazil’s most successful YouTuber, and has made the transition nicely to the cinematic medium. With two solid films now under his belt, each of the same DNA, but with different resources at his disposal, Penna is proof the talents of some internet stars aren’t just an illusion. He always seems to make the right decisions as far as visual storytelling, with thoughtful framing and kinetic camera motion.
There are small touches that show his inventiveness as a filmmaker. Whenever a character speaks with mission control, we never hear the voices of those on Earth, only those on the ship, furthering our sense of isolation along with the crew, therefore raising tensions. We don’t have the comfort of anyone back home to reel our panic back in. We’re out there with them in the abyss.
Stowaway isn’t a psychological thriller, but a philosophical one. Where most of its contemporaries grapple with who’s telling the truth and who isn’t, the film keeps an open perspective, which lets the audience sees things objectively, privy to literally every piece of information, as well as who knows how much of it. There aren’t any real twists, past the inciting incident, yet Penna still keeps us on edge by using our omniscience against us. For all of its flaws, this is still very much the product of someone who understands moviemaking, and I can’t wait to see what Penna does next.