There are a thousand ways to die in space, some of them instantaneous, the result of a catastrophic failure in a propulsion system causing fuel to explode or a hull breach leading to atmospheric decompression, or the slow ways, adrift and unable to correct course, wondering which will run out first, food and water or oxygen and heat.
It is these latter scenarios which informed Arthur C Clarke’s Breaking Strain and The Cold Equations of Tom Godwin, published respectively in 1949 and 1954, long before manned spaceflight became an actuality, cautionary tales of the delicate balance of resources and how far they can be stretched in an unexpected eventuality, more recently taken to extremes in the home-grown potato farm of The Martian and the dilemma presented by the Stowaway.
The launch trajectory of MTS-42 immediately showing a minor deviation, it is not until they have committed to their transit that their unexpected fourth passenger is found, launch support engineer Michael Adams somehow trapped behind a bolted panel while performing pre-flight checks, injured and unconscious until irrevocably sent on a two year trip to Mars which he did not sign on for, orbital mechanics precluding any easy return.
Normally host to a crew of two, the heavy radiation shielding of MTS-42 has been stripped back to allow a third, a precarious balancing act now upset by the additional presence of Michael; the experimental algal cultures of biologist David Kim might be able to partially offset the difference, but the discovery that the carbon dioxide scrubbers are irreparably damaged means it is unavoidable that at least one of the quartet must be sacrificed if the others have any hope of surviving to their destination.
Directed by Joe Penna from a script co-written with Ryan Morrison, the cast of Stowaway cannot be faulted, Hereditary’s Toni Collette as Commander Marina Barnett, her façade of calm cracking as she tries to protect her crew from their dwindling options, Hellboy’s Daniel Day Kim as David, forced to sacrifice the future of his research for survival, Mr. Right’s Anna Kendrick as inappropriately perky ship’s doctor Zoe Levenson and Wynonna Earp’s Shamier Anderson as titular stowaway Michael.
The premise simple enough, like Commander Barnett’s whispered conversations with Jim at Mission Control whose diction resembles that of Peanuts‘ Miss Othmar or Zoe’s unsupported optimism that a solution will present itself, Penna makes every effort to avoid dealing with the situation he has created, dragging out the crisis for two hours of small talk which fails to make the characters more than functionaries going through their assigned duties, predictable revelations of traumatic backstories notwithstanding.
What should be felt as a tragedy if any of them dies instead marked by an indifference to whether all of them suffocate in the blackness of space, Stowaway exists in a tedious vacuum or poor narrative logic, the counterweighted spin of the Hyperion and its tethered launch vehicle Kingfisher devoid of backup systems and seemingly designed for no other reason than make the last resort operation as deliberately cumbersome as possible even if it were not undertaken with poorly designed equipment during a potentially lethal coronal mass ejection.
Penna presumably choosing to shoot almost entirely within the confines of the vessel to make the viewer feel as though they are trapped in the situation along with the crew, the spacious illuminated passages defy tension and claustrophobia while the lack of exteriors deny the chance for perspective or grandeur, and ultimately Stowaway could have been told more believably in another setting, the irrelevant science fiction elements failing to compensate for the lack of atmosphere.