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‘Stowaway’: Tension builds nicely as unplanned crewmate puts Mars mission in peril

Netflix space opera handles its delicate decisions with grace.

Knocked unconscious in a space station just before liftoff, Michael (Shamier Anderson) becomes an unanticipated participant in a Mars mission in “Stowaway.”
Netflix

For all its high-tech gloss and futuristic, deep-space sci-fi CGI, the Netflix original film “Stowaway” boils down to this:

You’ve got four people on a ship that has enough oxygen for three people. What is to be done?

Directed with great style and a keen sense of pacing by the Brazilian musician-filmmaker by Joe Penna, “Stowaway” dispenses with any Earth-bound prologue and launches (sorry) immediately with a two-year, round-trip mission to Mars featuring a three-person crew: Anna Kendrick’s Zoe, a medical doctor; Daniel Dae Kim’s David, a biologist, and Toni Collette’s Marina, the commander of the team. The camera fluidly follows them as they navigate the labyrinthine and narrow corridors of the space station, get settled in, try out the obligatory meals-in-a-bag, and go about conducting the experiments and tests and planning that will help set up a colony on Mars, because we’re always trying to set up a colony on Mars in movies like this, aren’t we?

From time to time, Marina connects with Mission Control on Earth, though we never actually hear anyone’s voices, just muffled conversational suggestions. This is an effective technique, further establishing how isolated the crew will be from everyone but one another over the many, many months to come.

We learn this is Marina’s final mission, and David has a family back home, and Zoe volunteered for the program on a whim and never expected to be accepted but is now thrilled to be a part of history. As the crew goes about the business of logging entries and tending to plant life and flipping switches while speaking in very convincing terms about lots of stuff we don’t necessarily understand, “Stowaway” has a nice, slow build, as we know SOMETHING dramatic is going to happen pretty soon because if not, we wouldn’t have a movie. (That “Stowaway” title is carrying a pretty solid hint.)

They’re all getting along and they’re all quite nice and we’re getting to know them and root for them, and everything is going smoothly — and that’s when an unconscious man literally falls through the ceiling and lands with a thud on top of Zoe.

Shamier Anderson’s Michael is a launch support engineer who was knocked unconscious during last-minute preparations for the flight and somehow went undetected, until the moment when he landed right in the middle of the movie. Miraculously, Michael has survived — and when he regains consciousness and staggers to the window, imagine the level of freakout when he realizes that’s Earth out there, which means he’s in outer space. (And it’s too late to turn back.)

Michael comes across as a good guy and after initial doubts among the crew about whether he intentionally stowed away, it appears it really was an accident. (It’s a tribute to Shamier Anderson’s subtle performance that there remains just the slightest possibility Michael is up to something nefarious, and whether that turns out to be true will not be revealed here.)

Complicating matters to the nth degree: The ship’s life support system has been damaged, most likely beyond repair. If all four onboard try to make it to Mars, they’ll all die; if one is sacrificed, the remaining three just might be able to complete this vital and potentially humanity-saving mission. Given Zoe, Marina and David are actually supposed to be on the ship and Michael is an untrained, uninvited guest, you do the math. Marina successfully lobbies with her bosses back home to buy 10 days of time for the crew to try some last-minute calculations and heroics to save Michael, much to the relief of Zoe and much to consternation of David, who says every day they spend chasing an impossible Hail Mary is another day wasting precious resources. Meanwhile, Michael is facing conscious death — an almost unimaginably devastating fate.

The unexpected presence of Michael (Shamier Anderson, left) causes a dilemma for the Mars mission’s three-person crew (Anna Kendrick, Daniel Dae Kim and Toni Collette).
Netflix

Penna and his co-writer Ryan Morrison handle this existentially challenging material with grace, and Kendrick, Collette, Kim and Anderson deliver equally impactful, intense performances. (We’re in space, but this is essentially a four-character play.) The beautiful and haunting music of Volker Bertelmann is evocative of great space operas such as “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Interstellar” and “Gravity,” augmenting the feelings of helplessness and despair among the crew as they face the inevitable.

Not surprisingly “Stowaway” eventually takes the action outside the claustrophobic interiors of the ship for a dangerous, borderline reckless, last-ditch attempt to save the day, with Zoe and David risking their lives in space while Marina attempts to guide them and Michael agonizes over the impossible situation he has inadvertently created. We’re not entirely surprised by how it all plays out, but that doesn’t minimize the emotional impact of an ending that rings true and hits our hearts.