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- Directed by Joe Penna
- Written by Joe Penna and Ryan Morrison
- Starring Anna Kendrick, Shamier Anderson and Toni Collette
- Classification PG; 116 minutes
If someone out there is enjoying 2021, it’s probably filmmakers Joe Penna and Ryan Morrison. I have no window into the men’s personal lives, but given their filmography, the two really have a thing for misery and isolation.
The pair’s 2015 short film Turning Point, with Penna directing and the pair sharing script-writing duties, featured a woman trapped alone inside an abandoned home fighting a viral infection. Their 2019 feature-length drama Arctic focused on a stranded pilot who must decide whether to trek across a polar bear-infested tundra or wait for a rescue that may never arrive. And Stowaway, their latest collaboration, goes into the deepest reaches of space, where three astronauts are left to their own devices after the titular character, an engineer who gets trapped onboard their shuttle during launch, compromises their ship’s life-support capabilities. Whee!
While contemplating imminent, cavalry-less doom isn’t everyone’s cup of pandemic-era tea, the question that Penna and Morrison’s work poses isn’t whether you have the taste for their specific brand of on-screen seclusion-heavy adventure, but whether it works from a cinematic perspective. Do the filmmakers do enough to ensure that audiences identify with the characters and their solitary-ish plights? Are we being engaged in a dynamic way, or are we merely being put through the narrative paces -- the screenplay’s screws tightening for no real reason except spartan-set novelty? After making my way through Stowaway, I think the resounding answer is: eh, maybe.
For its first third, Stowaway works well enough. Off the top, Penna and Morrison make the interesting move of ensuring that we aren’t introduced to any outside voices other than those aboard a Mars-bound shuttle: spunky doctor Zoe (Anna Kendrick), stoic biologist David (Daniel Dae Kim), and stern commander Marina (Toni Collette). All transmission with mission control is depicted in a one-way fashion: the astronauts hear what their minders on Earth have to say, but the audience isn’t privy to any such communication. The effect of just seeing Marina and company talk, nod and respond -- without us ever hearing the other side of the conversation -- creates a quick and neat sense of uncertainty. Help is out there, but we’re all on our own.
This uncomfortable truth is doubly unfortunate for the crew, who only a few hours into their two-year, no-turning-back mission discover that engineer Michael (Shamier Anderson) was stuck inside one of the ship’s ducts, bleeding and unconscious. After some investigating, it’s clear that Michael didn’t intend to steal himself aboard the vessel, but by this point intentions don’t much matter: The man is sucking up precious oxygen that the astronauts cannot spare, and soon a decision must be made as to his fate.
That’s a daring and dark premise, and one that the talented cast, especially Canadian actor Anderson, attempt to chew over with as much intensity and thought as Penna and Morrison’s script affords. Which, unfortunately, isn’t all that much. Because just whenever the story’s central tension threatens to get interesting and complicated, the filmmakers deflate it in the most obvious of ways.
For instance, the film’s central conceit carries a potentially incendiary element of race and class that is only briefly flicked at. Michael is Black, hails from a distinctly working-class background and is woefully under-trained compared to his shipmates. From the moment that the astronauts -- all of whom are at the top of their respective fields, we’re told early in the film -- discover Michael, an unspoken conversation begins about whether the man is worthy of being aboard this mission. And then whether he is worthy of even living.
Yet Penna and Morrison, either by design or ignorance, do everything they can to avoid directly engaging with the conflict they created, instead letting it briefly hang there in the gravity-free air of the shuttle. I’m not insisting that the filmmakers spoon-feed us their themes -- that the only way to dissect an issue is to verbalize it -- but the most interesting element of Stowaway is never explored. Instead, what could -- and maybe should -- be the motivating tension of the film is swapped in favour of some CGI-heavy space-walk set-pieces that you have already seen a dozen times before (and maybe even within the past few months, given how closely they echo the stunts of The Midnight Sky and Ad Astra).
In space, no one can hear you scream. But watching Stowaway, there’s a good chance that you’ll hear muffled cries of frustration. They’ll be coming from inside the house.
Stowaway is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.