The title of this modest but enthralling sci-fi film is no red herring. Shortly after take-off on their mission to Mars, the three-member crew of a state-of-the-art spaceship discover an unexpected fourth person on board. Steered with self-restraint by YouTuber-turned-director Joe Penna, their tense journey will keep you emotionally invested even if you guess the odd plot twist.
Stowaway‘s un-showy opening scenes introduce us to the ship’s commander Marina Barnett (Hereditary‘s Toni Collette), an experienced astronaut on her final mission, and her two high-achieving crewmates. Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) is a young medical researcher with an cheeky sense of humour – it’s easy to see why Kendrick was cast in the role – and David Kim (Hawaii Five-0‘s Daniel Dae Kim) is a slightly older, more overtly serious biologist. Penna, who also co-wrote the screenplay, injects their interactions with a convincing hint of awkwardness. Though Levenson and Kim establish a suitably lame in-joke involving the old Yale-Harvard rivalry, we get the sense that the challenging reality of spending the next two years together in a confined high-stakes environment is beginning to hit home.
The trio’s businesslike calm is interrupted when Barnett spots blood on the ship’s floor and an unconscious man falls from the roof panel above her. After being treated by Levenson and regaining consciousness, he reveals that he is Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson), an engineer working on the ship’s launch who has no recollection of how he got trapped on board for take-off. You don’t need to be a NASA scientist to find this scenario highly unlikely, but Penna keeps the narrative moving quickly enough to stop you from questioning it too much.
It would be a shame to spoil the specifics, so let’s just say that Barnett faces a hell of an ethical dilemma when it becomes apparent that the ship is damaged, and perhaps irreparably. Though we see the increasingly stressed captain communicating with colleagues on the ground, Penna never shows them or lets us hear their voices. It’s a clever move that heightens the sense of claustrophobia on board and adds a suggestion that the swanky-sounding company behind the mission, Hyperion, might be a faceless corporation which values profit above the crew’s wellbeing.
Penna’s decision to give Michael a tragic backstory is less elegant – actually, it’s a pretty ham-fisted way of engendering sympathy for the character, though Anderson’s affecting performance manages to transcend it. The tension peaks with an extended action sequence that takes two of the team to the very extremities of the ship, then gives the perennially underrated Kendrick a chance to show her range. Stowaway won’t be 2021’s flashiest or most dazzling sci-fi flick, but it packs a very satisfying emotional punch.
- Director: Joe Penna
- Starring: Anna Kendrick, Toni Collette, Daniel Dae Kim
- Release date: April 22 (Netflix)