' ' Cinema Romantico: Stowaway

Tuesday, May 25, 2021


The deus ex machina is an age-old literary device, one culled from the Latin phrase meaning god from the machine because ancient Greek and Roman drama would often artificially resolve otherwise unsolvable drama by having a god appear in the sky. Resolution, of course, indicates the end of the drama whereas in “Stowaway”, writer/director Joe Penna’s new Netflix drama, the god of the machine does not get lowered in to resolve the drama but to kick it off, which at least in its own hoary way is sort of a fresh take. The movie opens with a three-person crew blasting off on a two-year mission to Mars. Not long into the voyage, however, Commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette) discovers a stowaway. Well, make that accidental stowaway. A launch engineer, Michael (Shamier Anderson), who fails to properly secure a harness, or something, and becomes trapped behind a ceiling panel, knocked unconscious. It is not simply a deGrasse Tyson-ish minor plot point hang-up, it’s the genesis for the entire movie. And though there is something interesting in a random foul-up messing up a mission virtually calibrated down to the last breath, that very calibration is also what renders it almost utterly implausible, suggesting a lack of imagination on the storyteller’s part: uh, I don’t know, just stick him behind a ceiling panel. At the same time, though, his being an unintentional stowaway alters the perspective. If another movie would have made him put him there on purpose, likely up to no good, one more haunted house in space, “Stowaway” renders the villain more abstract.

The first few scenes after liftoff establish a friendly rapport between the crew, Commander Barnett joined by biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim) and medical researcher Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick). It’s so friendly, in fact, that the seemingly lugheaded bit about David being a Harvard graduate and Zoe being a Yale graduate is there more to gently mock the notion of any kind of conflict. They get along fine, and that mostly remains true even after Michael’s surprising appearance, the trio welcoming and including him and Michael pulling his weight rather than slacking off or acting tellingly weird. No, the tension is not so much from Michael’s presence as what his presence has inadvertently caused, damage to the ship’s vital CDRA, scrubbing carbon dioxide from the air to ensure they can continue breathing oxygen to, like, you know, live. This damage in tandem with the mission specifically planned for three people does not leave enough potential oxygen for four, establishing “Stowaway’s” overriding moral quandary, whether the mission supersedes finagling some way to save Michael’s life. It evokes the pragmatic debates driving Danny Boyle’s superior “Sunshine” (2007), though there such pragmatism was balanced against the fate of the world whereas in “Stowaway” these questions are personalized, making it more about Michael as caretaker to his sister back home and David’s desperation at salvaging an algae project he has prepared for years. Even here, though, Kim does not play it like a mad scientist, merely a botanist forced to make an excruciating choice, which is admirable if not a little less entertaining.

The acting in “Stowaway” is uniformly sound, as Collette balances a Commander’s sense of levelheadedness against an encroaching fear in nearly every scene while Kendrick’s patented eager beaverness is sort of remixing her “Up in the Air” character as an astronaut, finding the excitement of space morphing into something more terrifying and then, ultimately, more profound. That, however, also speaks to where “Stowaway” goes wrong. If there certain scenes of crew debate demand dialogue, frequently Penna eschews visually telling this story. When Michael discovers he is growing into himself from such an unlikely turn of events, Penna has him literally say this in voiceover rather than denoting it in through a scene or series of shots, just as Zoe’s ultimate moment of profundity is weirdly counteracted by a pre-existing voiceover plunked down over top of it to ensure we don’t miss the point. So, too, does “Stowaway” struggle at dramatizing its exposition, like a late movie solar storm that, without being satisfactorily set up, feels too much like, well, another god of the machine descended from the heavens at just the wrong time.

These missteps are unfortunate because at other points Penna does a strong job of exuding mood. Though the opening sequence recounting mission liftoff keeps the camera close to its actors’ helmeted faces while staying firmly within the confines of the spaceship, akin to “First Man”, “Stowaway” is less interested in conveying claustrophobia. Indeed, as the movie progresses and the situation grows dire and their initial camaraderie suffers, Penna emphasizes the loneliness of space. You see this inside the spaceship, constructed as a series of hallways and hatchways for which we are never given a precise kind of layout, rendering it plausible when characters speak out of earshot of other characters. And in the climactic spacewalk, where Zoe and David climb from the spaceship to the spent booster rocket in the hopes of acquiring leftover liquid oxygen for survival, Penna takes great care to paint these two astronaut suits as white blips against the vivid blackness, their ascent, or is it a descent, the perspective seeming to shift as they climb, equating them with mountaineers summiting a peak that keeps shifting. When they first exit the ship, Zoe looks up and the camera tilts back and up with her, the tethers leading from their ship to the rocket seeming to disappear into nothing, a movie portraying space travel as no big deal nevertheless reminding us that the final frontier remains the great unknown.

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