REVIEW: Stowaway (2021)

Daniel Dae Kim in Joe Penna’s STOWAWAY — Photo: Netflix.

Directed by Joe Penna (Arctic) – Screenplay by Joe Penna & Ryan Morrison.

Back in 2019, Joe Penna released his feature-length directorial debut, the Mads Mikkelsen-vehicle Arctic, which was a gripping story of survival in the face of a hopeless and cold wilderness. I was extremely impressed by Penna’s debut film, as it felt real, as it had a lot of heart, and since it rarely felt Hollywood-ized. It also helped that Mads Mikkelsen delivered one of his best performances in Penna’s underseen debut.

Joe Penna’s Stowaway, the director’s sophomore feature film, has a lot in common with his debut film. This is yet another story of survival, it’s a story about a character trying to save someone else as well as themselves (even though the main character is not in as much danger as this secondary individual), and, somehow, both films feature this secondary character that, for all intents and purposes, shouldn’t be where the main character is, and this shocking displacement is what gets the plot moving in both films.

Whereas Penna’s debut film was set in the harsh wilderness of the Arctic, his second film is set in space and is, on the surface, about a 2-year-long three-man mission to Mars. The film begins with the launch of MTS-42, which is piloted by Mission Commander Marina Barnett (played by Toni Collette), biologist David Kim (played by Daniel Dae Kim), and medical professional and researcher Zoe Levenson (played by Anna Kendrick).

This launch sequence manages to communicate exactly what types of characters these three individuals are with very little dialogue. Barnett is focused and ready to follow the rules and objectives of the mission strictly, Kim is shown to be nervous, as he struggles to adjust to the constant turbulence during their take-off, and, finally, Zoe is excited, wide-eyed, and she seems to really be enjoying every moment of it, as if she has been waiting for this moment all of her life.

But before long their expectations for the mission are upended, as Barnett discovers an unconscious and injured stowaway — launch support engineer Michael Adams (played by Shamier Anderson) — hidden inside of the ship, and, right when she discovers him, he inadvertently destroys a device that clears carbon dioxide from the air on the ship. Soon the crew discovers that since this device has been destroyed beyond repair, they now certainly will not have enough oxygen for four people on their two-year mission to Mars. It soon becomes clear for both mission control and the crew that someone has to sacrifice themselves or be sacrificed.

Although the film is to some extent thematically about whether or not you can live with yourself knowing that someone else has to sacrifice themselves for you, when Stowaway is boiled down to its basic elements, it is a film about sacrificing yourself. At the end of the day, Stowaway is just one of the many science-fiction films that features scenes where characters get into arguments about who has to take the risk and who gets to stay behind. The major difference is that for Stowaway that decision or discussion is pretty much the entire movie. The film rests almost entirely on this dilemma, since we don’t get any scenes with mission control or set on Earth or, indeed, scenes that emphasize just how important the mission is.

Knowing the premise as I sat down to watch the film, one of the first thoughts that I had was that I was unsure whether or not the film could successfully expand what is essentially just a plot point in your average space drama and turn it into the focus of an entire film’s runtime. Is there enough meat on the bone, so to speak, for the central question to be captivating and emotionally involving for 116 minutes? The answer is ultimately both yes and no. While Stowaway is mostly a successful genre exercise that has all of the basic elements that can amount to a successful space drama, I have some notable problems with the execution.

There are some really great scenes and sequences here. I enjoyed the long-takes onboard the ship. I loved the launch itself, and there are some moments in the space-walks towards the end of the film that do manage to hold your attention greatly. But in addition to that greatness, there are also some less-than-ideal things about the film, like having the extremely exposition-heavy television interview from the spacecraft (an interview which features a quote that is surprisingly important to the film) be shown from just one angle.

The biggest problem with the film, though, is its length and its pacing. Stowaway feels very slow, the crew definitely takes their time to make their decisions, and even the scenes that are meant to keep you on the edge of your seat are, for the most part, rather slow. Just like the characters are emotionally drained by the overwhelming responsibility, the difficult dilemma, and the guilt of the decision that they have to make at some point, the film also becomes a little bit tiring because of its slow pace and a puzzling drought of tension. There is a moment earlier in the film where one character questions whether or not ‘the stowaway’ is there by accident or not, and I kind of wish the film would’ve focused on that angle more since it could’ve livened up the film somewhat.

Already with only two films under his belt, Joe Penna has been blessed with some incredible actors. The performance that he helped to bring out of Mads Mikkelsen in Arctic was just amazing, and I had hoped that Penna would once again unleash a memorable performance upon us. Kim, Collette, and Kendrick are all great actors, but the performance that left the best impression on me in Stowaway was delivered by its titular character, Shamier Anderson, who shows a lot of vulnerability in some demanding scenes.

Joe Penna’s sophomore outing as a feature film director is not the impressive achievement that I thought his debut was. I don’t think Stowaway is, ultimately, tense enough for its central premise to be gripping throughout the film’s overlong runtime. There are certainly things to admire about the film, and fans of the genre will have a decent time with it, but it is significantly hampered by the runtime and the slow pace.

6 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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