Stowaway, On Netflix, Is A Solid Sci-Fi Thriller But A Profound Cultural Statement, Film Companion

Director: Joe Penna
Written by: Joe Penna and Ryan Morrison
Edited by: Ryan Morrison
Cinematography: Klemens Becker
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Toni Collette, Daniel Dae Kim, Shamier Anderson
Streams on: Netflix

It says something about the world of today that modern sci-fi storytelling has spotted the inherent inwardness of the outer-space template. Forget aliens, hostile planets, black holes, solar storms and Christopher Nolan’s sense of time – humans first have to be saved from themselves. Joe Penna’s Stowaway subscribes to this new-age notion more than most. The tense film unfurls entirely on a manned spaceship, featuring a three-person crew that embarks on a two-year mission to make Mars habitable. Commander Marina (Toni Collette) is the senior pro, acclaimed biologist David (Daniel Dae Kim) is a stoic oxymoron to Matt Damon’s Martian, and medical researcher Zoe (Anna Kendrick) is the excited cub earning her stripes. But the chamber drama quickly morphs into an unlikely morality thriller when an accidental stowaway named Michael (Shamier Anderson) is found unconscious in a duct hours after take-off. Michael is a junior engineer who apparently passed out during a last-minute check; he is nursed back to health by the startled astronauts.

Is Michael’s presence even possible? Is Hyperion, the fictional stand-in for NASA, capable of such a petty mistake? It doesn’t matter, because the questions Stowaway commits to have more to do with humanity than science. It’s the hearts of Earth’s sharpest minds that are put to test. At first, the pre-conditioned sci-fi viewer might imagine something more sinister at play: is Michael really who he says he is? What is his ulterior motive? Is he a mole of Hyperion or a rebel out to warn the unsuspecting crew about their toxic mission? But it soon becomes apparent that Stowaway isn’t that sort of movie. The conflict is far more primal, reminiscent of the one faced by three trapped mountaineers at the bottom of a crevasse in Vertical Limit. What matters is that Michael is the fourth passenger on a journey calibrated for just three. When the life-supply module is irreparably damaged, Commander Marina’s consultations with Hyperion reveal that some very tough decisions have to be made. The immediacy of the crew’s survival aside, years of research and the future of human colonisation are at stake.

At surface level, Stowaway is a well-crafted piece of cinema. The interiors of the ship are constructed to depict a sense of claustrophobia without having to resort to snazzy camera angles and kinetic editing. The writing is sparse but expressive, as evidenced in an early scene where David, a meticulous biologist, indulges in a Sebastian-from-La La Land rave about the unrehearsed beauty of jazz to Michael’s untrained ear. The framing of the scenes, too, is designed to subtly subvert our perception of outer-space drama. For instance, there is a visible bond – of age and hunger and eagerness – between Zoe and the “guest” Michael. Keeping this in mind, one of the scenes opens with Zoe dressing up Michael’s stitches. She asks him to take off his top. When he hesitates, one assumes that it’s the sexual tension in the room. Once he starts to disrobe, the camera instantly cuts to Zoe, who seems to eye his torso and then his face, as though she’s startled by his physique. (It helps that Anna Kendrick is a master of that internal gasp.) But the camera pulls out slowly, and we finally see what she sees: a giant burn scar across Michael’s waist. The “sexual tension” was in fact the social awkwardness that emerges when an elephant enters the room. A scene like this suggests that Stowaway doesn’t nurse the bandwidth for cheap thrills. It isn’t interested in the trappings of a narrative so much as the vagaries of human nature.

But Stowaway, like any formidable genre vehicle, is much more than its form. Built into its setting is a racial parable for the divisive age we live in. As a writer from a country currently being crippled by governance and a severe second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s hard to overcome the cruel irony of a film centred on a desperate against-the-clock battle to locate extra oxygen. (Subtext: the pursuit may as well be in outer space.) This is of course an unintended and morbidly incidental allegory of India today, but Stowaway also contains an intended nod to today’s United States of America. The Black Lives Matter movement is a tangible undercurrent, especially in how the film is ethnically staged. Michael, an African American student, is ‘surplus baggage’ on a shuttle captained by a middle-aged white woman, with an Asian second-in-charge who is essentially responsible for producing life. Just for aspiring to break the glass ceiling (Michael is literally found in the ceiling of the ship), the black man finds himself in the mortal position of a victim. The situation in the shuttle is a condensed snapshot of earthly prejudice. And Marina’s discussions with the Hyperion top brass feature her reacting into her earpiece – we don’t hear what the white men say because we can sense it. It’s in our heads, too.

That the Asian man is the first to break – David’s job suffers, and he reluctantly urges Michael to sacrifice himself for the greater good – becomes a dramatic indictment of the survival-of-the-fittest syndrome forced upon America’s immigrant culture. David’s conflict is reflective of a larger national illness, as is Marina’s helplessness as a leader who is unable to lead by example. But Stowaway goes where no man has gone before, by fixating on a young woman. Zoe stands in for the dissenting and pro-active youth of a country that was, till very recently, at the crossroads of democracy. That she is a talented doctor ties in neatly with the frontline heroism on display across the globe. Her arc is symbolic of a hopeful future rather than a reduced past – a reminder of why the fate of every generation lies squarely in the fists of its freshers.

As a result, the resolution of the film is undeniably cathartic. It is immersed in sentimentality, but reaches beyond politics and colour, daring to blur the line between sci-fi traditionalism and revisionist fable. On one hand, it’s a visceral tragedy. On the other, it’s a war cry that defies an anti-gravitational void. After all, it’s not often that space doubles up as a metaphor for time.

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