May 3, 2021
Stars Anna Kendrick, Toni Collette, Daniel Dae Kim, Shamier Anderson.
It comes as no surprise that science-fiction is often a breeding ground for morality tales steeped in the guise of fantastical fiction, the trappings of the genre providing unique options for new ways to explore a topic. The ethical dilemma at the core of Stowaway is one that has been debated in countless philosophy classes and is itself a sci-fi staple: Can taking an innocent life be justified if it means saving more?
The film, steeped in realism by director and co-writer Joe Penna, depicts what is supposed to be a routine mission to a Mars colony in the not-to-distant future. The crew consists of Commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim) and medical researcher Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick).
Their method of travel between the planets is a Mars cycler — an intriguing concept that involves parking a large habitable vehicle in a stable orbit around the sun that takes it near Earth and Mars every few months. Since the ship, once it’s established as a cycler, doesn’t need to burn the massive amount of fuel required for an interplanetary journey (aside from slight course corrections), it offers an efficient method for travel between the two destinations, with crews simply needing to shuttle from the surface to the cycler when it’s in range (while also refreshing its consumables from time to time).
As the crew of MTS-42 settles into their two-year mission, they discover that a launch support engineer named Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson) was knocked out performing some pre-flight maintenance, and has accidentally become the stowaway of the title. With no way for the cycler to turn around, Michael is stuck with them on the trip to Mars, so they make him part of the crew. It turns out, however, that his presence threatens the entire mission. First, during the launch his unconscious body damaged a device that scrubs carbon dioxide from the ship’s breathable air. With no way to repair it, and with Michael’s unexpected presence putting more strain on the ship’s oxygen reserves, the crew will run out of air weeks before reaching Mars.
Mission control determines there’s no way to mount a rescue mission in time to save the mission. Biologist Kim’s planned experiments to grow algae on Mars, if implemented on the ship, might provide enough extra oxygen to get three people to Mars. That leaves the crew with the harsh reality of finding another desperate solution on their own, or ejecting Michael out of the airlock.
The dilemma, as it applies to spaceflight, has its origins in Tom Godwin’s 1954 short story The Cold Equations, which involved a medical supply ship loaded with vaccines and just enough fuel to reach an outlying world as quickly as possible hampered by too much weight when a teenage girl sneaks aboard because she wants to see her brother, forcing the pilot to consider her life against those of thousands of colonists dying from an outbreak. The short was the basis for a pretty faithful adaptation on an episode of the 1980s “Twilight Zone.”
Like Cold Equations, Stowaway is bound to inspire discussion about the tragic circumstances that can often arise from the inherent dangers of spaceflight, and the best ways to deal with them, especially when there are no easy answers. Of course, like all works of fiction designed to twist the audience’s natural sensibilities, fate and plain old bad luck have their roles to play as well.
While the dilemma requires intricate plotting to serve the story, as a piece of speculative fiction Stowaway is methodically paced and a bit claustrophobic, bringing the audience along with the POV of the crew — which means Penna eschews any flashy visual effects or long lingering exterior shots of the spacecraft. The cast’s performances are engaging, with Kendrick playing the typical energetic, optimistic personality she usually plays, just as an astronaut.
Interestingly, Penna conceived of the film as the first of a loose trilogy of films involving Mars missions, though the story for the sequel apparently became the basis for Penna’s 2018 film Arctic, with Mads Mikkelsen awaiting rescue in the polar north regions of Earth, rather than somewhere on Mars had the trilogy panned out.