In the Jewish tradition, a Rabbi will often interpret the meaning of a chapter in the bible with a Midrash. It’s an interpretation of the words by engaging with the meaning behind the text. Often, the Midrash would leave you asking more philosophical questions from the story, what it teaches us, and, perhaps more importantly, recognizing how we would choose to act given the same situation.
Stowaway, the new Netflix film by Joe Penna, feels very much like a Midrash, forcing its characters to reconcile with their survival and asking the audience questions of morality and sacrifice. As a three-person crew sets off on a two-year mission to Mars, they’re faced with an impossible choice when a fourth crew member is found on board. What begins as an exciting adventure quickly devolves into a survival situation as the normally two-person vessel can’t produce enough oxygen to complete the mission.
While there are loads of thrilling aspects to enjoy, it’s the meditation on how each individual reconciles with the dire situation that’s engrossing. A man falls from the ceiling, and they are forced to engage in any possible way to reverse the scenario. The lesson is more than just the decision they make, but the value they place on each other.
Of course, the quartet of actors is perfectly cast together in this film. While it’s easy to point holes in the film’s logic, the actors here make the almost two-hour film engaging and believable. There are also enough open threads to continue thinking about the film’s events by its end. How you interpret them is the lesson.
Stowaway begins with the crew launching into a two-year mission to Mars, including Ship Commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), Medical Researcher Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick), and Biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim). They were chosen from thousands of applicants and experienced grueling training covering all aspects of the mission. After arriving at the space station, Commander Barnett finds droplets of blood on the floor. She open’s the ship’s hull, and a man comes crashing down onto her arm. When he awakens, they learn his name is Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson), and he’s an engineer who somehow got trapped in the ceiling before takeoff. That’s about all you learn about his appearance, and while it is unsatisfyingly vague, the crew’s immediate survival response blankets any worrisome feelings about his arrival. Realizing the carbon dioxide scrubbing box has been compromised, they realize there will not be enough oxygen for everyone on board to survive the mission.
The team faces increasingly challenging obstacles as they try to ensure everyone’s survival. However, the findings by both mission control and commander Barnett are that Michael’s presence will be why none of them survive. As Michael connects with David and Zoe, he reveals that he is the legal guardian of his sister. Zoe, determined to find a solution, remains optimistic, but David is prepared for the ultimate, deadly decision. Not everyone on this ship will survive, and it’s clear who should draw the short straw.
Penna, who also wrote the script with Ryan Morrison, has created a subtle and engaging situation that looks glorious. At one point, Cinematographer Klemens Becker tracks Zoe through narrow corridors, whips around in a circle, and appears on the other side of a door Zoe closes. The filmmaking innovatively captures the vastness of space and the chilling confines of this large chamber of metal.
Collette is disarmingly natural in this world, and she displays a brilliant range of emotions when mission control informs her there are no more viable solutions. Her face slowly morphs into a blend of fear, fatigue, and frustration. Kendrick proves once again her chameleon talent for being able to convince in any film. Her softness and optimism are a perfect counter to Daniel Dae Kim, who becomes increasingly tense as days pass and no resolution is found.
By the end, there are still questions about Michael’s sudden appearance onboard. Did he not clock out of work? What are human resources going to do about this? But these add to the film’s intrigue, which looks toward more essential questions of sacrifice and composure under pressure in its best moments.
As Zoe recounts a story from her days working as a lifeguard, she tells Michael that, one day, when she arrived for her shift, she didn’t think anyone would swim in the ocean given all the ‘No Swimming Allowed’ signs. While she read her book, a drunk man, whose friends were all passed out on the beach, wandered into the ocean and quietly drowned. When Zoe reached him, she was already fatigued and tried to keep his head above water. For about five minutes, they’re both struggling. Should she just let him drown so she can survive? At what point do you stop fighting to save someone’s life when yours is also at fatal risk?