Here's some helpful advice: Don't ever go into outer space. There's no air, there are solar flares, and, in case you had not heard, once there, no one can hear you scream.
But then again, Mars is just sitting there (OK, revolving around the sun) ready to be made habitable to human life. Netflix's new sci-fi movie Stowaway, now available on the streamer, is set in the near future (they still use the word "selfies") when colonizing the red planet isn't just theory — it's actually happening with positive results. It's just that getting humans there remains a big pain in the ass.
Directed and co-written by Joe Penna (the Brazilian YouTube sensation-turned-filmmaker whose first effort, Arctic, is one of the better survival drama movies of the decade), Stowaway is a harsh look at a "what would you do?" situation in zero gravity. While I don't have any PhDs attached to my name, it certainly has the feel of being realistic — "hard sci fi" some call it. The way the ships, rockets, and tethers work don't just lend a "you are there" feel, the particulars actually help drive the story.
The first five minutes of this movie ought to be taught in film schools. It's how to do sound design right. Using spare shots (three people shaking in chairs, a tiny blurred glimpse out a window, some graphics on a monitor), the "audio image" of lift-off, booster-separations, and off-screen technical chatter do the work of what would cost a fortune in special effects in less assured hands. There's also the reactions of our three characters strapped-in and feeling G-forces.
In the commander's seat is Marina (Toni Collette), basically giving a lift to two scientists: Zoe (Anna Kendrick), off to Mars for medical research, and David (Daniel Dae Kim), a phycologist with a bunch of microgreens and soil. And at first everything seems fine. The trio is getting set for its five-month journey to the Red Planet, 14 months of poking around up there, and five months back. For Marina this will be her third and final voyage as an interplanetary chauffeur.
Their ship is docked with some kind of solar-fueled module, and on the other end is their spent primary booster rocket, the gravity of which balances them out. The three modules are tethered, forming what looks like a giant soda straw in space, hurling end-over-end at ridiculous speeds. Makes sense to me, and, more importantly, it'll mean a dizzying climactic set piece. But before that, we need a conflict.
This movie is called Stowaway because before the vessel left Earth, one of the techs was still in the back working. Whoopsie! Seems like something that they'd check for, but you need to suspend your disbelief at first.
Turns out the stowaway, Michael (Shamier Anderson), is not some updated Dr. Smith from Lost in Space. He's not a baddie, he's actually the nicest guy in the galaxy. He even puts up with David's love of dissonant free jazz (John Coltrane's "India," to be specific). The problem is that by accidentally being there, he bashed himself around the ship and damaged the CO2 scrubbers. (Damaged CO2 scrubbers were a big issue in Apollo 13, you may recall.) As such, there's no way all four of them will make it to Mars alive. There simply isn't enough oxygen.
Moral crisis in space! Marina is ready to sacrifice herself, but she cannot; she's the only one who can land the ship. David's work is important for the betterment of mankind, plus he's got a wife at home. Zoe, on the other hand, isn't even ready to make these difficult calculations. She's a doctor — "first, do no harm" is her code, but beyond that there's "first, look for a solution." And despite every egghead on Earth telling them there is no solution, she's determined to find one.
Stowaway is a bit of a slow-burn, but it more than makes up for it in its realism. I confess I had to tamp down some "wait, why wouldn't they…" questions, and I hope that, should you watch the film, you are able to do the same. Beyond the very cool-looking spaceships and the wonky effects of artificial gravity, the movie succeeds because it is about people — ethical people — stuck in a very bad situation, and trying to figure out what to do.
Arctic was a terrific survival tale set in the snow. Stowaway is, fundamentally, more of the same, but in the vacuum of space. I look forward to Joe Penna rounding out the trilogy in a desert!
TV Guide rating: 4/5
Stowaway is now available on Netflix.