Joe Penna loves working through dire situations. His movies are like your brain when it spins off in idle moments imagining what you would do if this or that disaster occurred. What would you prioritize if you were stranded on an island? Where would you hunker down if a zombie outbreak occurred? Would you hide or attack if a gunman showed up (sorry if that’s an explicitly American scenario)?
If you’ve seen the co-writer/director’s previous feature, Arctic, then you’ll know what I mean. That was a bare bones survival movie, a Mads Mikkelsen versus the frozen north versus dwindling supplies adventure that threw everything and the kitchen sink at the poor guy. It made for a fascinating procedural, but it was a reserved movie. Cold, one might say, and it’s this aspect that he and co-writer/editor Ryan Morrison have filled out in Stowaway.
It’s still a pure survival story. We begin and end on a spaceship hurtling from Earth to Mars, the oh so humanly constructed machine the only thing protecting the three souls on board from the most inhospitable environment known to man. Well, everyone thought there were three of them, but an accident caused a technician to inadvertently come along for the ride. His presence throws off the careful equilibrium of the ship, and the foursome must find a way for as many of them as possible to survive.
The premise is so simple that lesser filmmakers would try to do too much with it. They’d falsely ratchet up the tension, maybe with some breaks from reality where the walls seem to close in or with absurdly dangerous attempts to rig a solution. Penna and Morrison are much too smart for such histrionics, to the point that one might accuse their movies of doing too little, but pay attention to the details. Do you hear what the people on the ground are saying when the crew calls in? No, and that’s unnerving and isolating. It’s touches like these that show just how much they’re quietly doing to keep your eyes on Stowaway, and now that this is paired with much enhanced character work, their sophomore effort is all the more engrossing.
That character work really comes down to giving each of the four people on this doomed mission their moments of struggle. Toni Collette as the commander stoically deals with tough calls while still showing human cracks. Daniel Dae Kim is a warm guy who can’t help but see the writing on the wall. And Shamier Anderson as the accidental stowaway proves to be the best and most heartbreaking kind of person to be the odd man out.
But it’s Anna Kendrick’s Zoe who is immediately brought to the fore. She is what you might call bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, a woman who’s excited to be in space for the first time, attentive and playful with her co-workers, and stubbornly sure that there’s a way out of this mess for all of them. Her arc becomes the backbone of the film, and while it isn’t filled out enough to totally stick the landing, the ferocity bottled up inside Kendrick (who reminds you that she’s one of the most undervalued performers working today) makes the character a surprising, endearing force at the center of the film.
These details make the four astronauts involving chess pieces in the game Penna and Morrison are playing, which is a matter-of-fact run through of the scenario. They are careful to lay everything out clearly, drop just the right amount of exposition, and make every decision before the characters count. And then they wait, make you sit and squirm in your chair as time ticks on and possibilities dwindle. This is not white-knuckle survival; it’s a highly measured march to the end, whatever that end may be. At times you won’t want it to come. You’ll want to sit with these characters a bit longer if only because inaction gives the illusion that maybe, miraculously, time will stop. But always Penna and Morrison wrench you forward, and always you cringe at the choices their characters are forced to make.
Much has been written about how movies have become either blockbuster behemoths or tiny indies over the last twenty-odd years. That’s trained us to forget that movies like Stowaway can exist and excel in their own way. Big names can get together for an adventure that unsettles instead of astounds. They can lack an evildoer or a bad guy or an existential reason for the suffering. They can assert that a human story about decent people facing cold realities is enough to keep your attention, and that those can exist even in the extravagant confines of outer space. Penna and Morrison have tapped into a scale of filmmaking few others are doing right now, and while they haven’t perfected it yet, they’re getting closer.
Release: currently available on Netflix
Director: Joe Penna
Writers: Joe Penna, Ryan Morrison
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Daniel Dae Kim, Shamier Anderson, Toni Collette