What …in bed is to fortune cookies, …in space is to movie ideas. Last week we had Voyagers, a promising but failed attempt at Lord Of The Flies …in space. This week Netflix brings us Stowaway, a kind of Sophie’s Choice …in space, starring Anna Kendrick, Toni Collette, Daniel Dae Kim, and Shamier Anderson.
Another space movie is still a welcome thing, and this one, from director Joe Panna (Arctic, Turning Point) offers tension and stress-inducing space action, delivering on the unspoken promise of basically every space movie. It’s more competent than inspired, however, with skillfully shot action but not much in the way of bold choices. It’s compelling enough while it lasts, but all but guaranteed to vanish from memory the instant the credits roll.
Kendrick, Kim, and Collette play Zoe, Marina, and David, respectively, astronauts on a two-year journey to Mars. They’ve only barely escaped the Earth’s atmosphere and settled into their long slow glide when an unconscious man (Michael, played by Anderson) falls through a ceiling panel. It turns out he’s part of the ground crew and accidentally ended up on the ship when it took off. Now he’s an accidental astronaut, stuck on a two-year journey in a cramped spaceship he never wanted to be on. Basically my worst nightmare.
It gets worse. Anderson’s character may have damaged the life-support systems during his fall, and the ship, partly thanks to the unexpectedly expanded crew, doesn’t have enough oxygen for all the people on it to make it to their destination. What to do!
It’s an interesting dilemma, even if it moves too quickly from Michael’s horror at being an unwilling astronaut to the scientific problem of how to make this spaceship accommodate additional bodies. Which turns out to be illustrative of Stowaways in general. It’s a film so focused on the “big picture” plot that it consistently glosses over those human elements that would’ve really made it sing.
If the question for the astronauts is how to solve this zero-sum survivor game, the central dilemma for Stowaways screenwriters Joe Panna and Ryan Morrison is how virtuous to make these astronauts. It’s a situation that can potentially bring out the best or worst of humanity, which is what makes it compelling. Yet Panna and Morrison’s choices all feel thoroughly safe, with characters who feel more like they’re going along with some grand plan than individuals with their own independent motivations. Kendrick’s medical officer, Zoe, is meant to be the humanitarian, and Kim’s botanist, David, the cruel realist, but there’s barely any space between them. Collette and Anderson’s characters are even less fleshed out.
Maybe it depends on your essential worldview, but I’ve always found willingly self-sacrificing characters to be not only a little boring but sort of a screenwriting crutch. It’s much easier to write yourself out of no-win situations if one of the characters just bravely throws themselves into the thresher to save the others. But how realistic is that? And how interesting is it? Inasmuch as he’s often accused of lacking a human touch (by me, among others) one of the most interesting things Christopher Nolan did in Interstellar was making Matt Damon’s character care more about himself than humanity or scientific progress. The best thing about The Sopranos is that the characters are all sons of bitches in their own way — no hugging, no learning.
Stowaway is hamstrung, at a basic level, by being cut more from the Aaron Sorkin cloth, where the characters are all more heroic, more moral versions of ourselves (though it distinctly lacks Sorkin’s snippy-snap dialogue). It’s also less memorable than that, since few of the “character choices” even feel like character choices. Things happen to these people, not because of who they are and how they act, but in order to create plot complications later on.
What it lacks in compelling characters Stowaway does make up for somewhat with deftly staged action. The dangerous-space-walk-resolves-a-plot-dilemma is a predictable choice, but Panna’s compositions are lucid and dynamic, creating a visceral sense of fear and maintaining a baseline suspense that rarely lets up. I found myself chewing my tongue a lot, my standard involuntary nervous behavior. Beware your fingernails.
Stowaway‘s characters work as audience stand-ins but not much more. Such that once the imminent danger passes, the movie loses any momentum it had going and perhaps wisely, just sort of ends. A movie that’s entertaining enough while it lasts and nothing more isn’t the worst thing in the world, but this began as a movie that promised tough choices, and it doesn’t really deliver any.