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"Stowaway" Review

 What is with Hollywood's aversion to happy endings? As Bill Maher recently ranted about how the all the 2021 Oscar Best Picture nominees are depressing (I've seen seven of the eight contenders and, yeah, pretty much), movies nowadays seem militantly unwilling to have the audience feel good at the end of the time spent watching them, which raises the question: Why bother?

 The latest offender is Stowaway, a Netflix Original which has a provocative concept, good performances, and a remarkably accurate verisimilitude in portraying space travel, only to squander it with some of the thinnest characterization I've seen in a movie (and that includes Godzilla vs. Kong) and a bummer of an ending.

The movie opens with the launch of the Kingfisher on its way to Mars with its three-person crew: Ship commander Marina (Toni Collette), doctor Zoe (Anna Kendrick), and biologist David (Daniel Dae Kim). While setting things up to conduct research during their journey, Marina spots drops of blood on the deck. Opening an overhead panel, out tumbles an unconscious man, Michael (Shamier Anderson), who breaks her forearm as she tries to break his fall.

After being stitched up and coming to, the crew learn that he was a launch pad engineer working on the ship and he had no intention on hitching a ride to Mars for two years. Unfortunately, his fall from the panel triggered the destruction of the ship's only CO2 scrubber (more on this later) meaning the crew will not have enough breathable air to survive the trip. Perhaps three people could make it, but not four. Uh-oh.

Thus we're presented with the classic Trolley Problem, the ethical thought experiment where a trolley is bearing down on five people tied to the tracks. There is a switch mechanism that would divert it to a siding, but there's a person standing there. Do you sacrifice the one to save the five?

While the crew initially conceals the gravity of their predicament from Michael, who seems a decent enough fellow and has tried to pitch in with the work on the ship, eventually one begins to encourage him to kill himself while another believes there has to be a way to MacGyver a solution. 

It's a thorny problem, but its ultimate resolution is unsatisfying due to Hollywood's current belief that "grim = good" (and I say this as someone who's noted that "All great movies end up with everyone being either dead or miserable.") and choosing to spend almost zero time making any of the characters people. It's a testament to the actors that they were able to make it seem like they were human beings we should care about, but here is literally every detail we learn about everyone is the movie:

  • This is Marina's third and final mission to Mars.
  • Zoe only applied to the program because she thought it'd be funny to be rejected.
  • Zoe used part of her limited personal effects weight allocation to bring Yale coffee mugs to troll Harvard grad David.
  • David is married and will miss his wife for two years.
  • Michael has a younger sister he worries about and he was burned in a fire as a child.

That's it. We're supposed to worry about their fates simply because we're supposed to worry about their fates. The nearly two-hour runtime has plenty of time for minutiae, but not characterization?  And that's before we have to deal with the huge logical gaps we need to leap in order to even accept the premise beginning with how the actual heck does a worker get sealed into a panel of an interplanetary spaceship without anyone noticing when it's not even where he describes he was working?!?

The secondary challenge, the destroyed CO2 scrubber, is also a deal-breaker because there is no way in hell such a vital life support system component wouldn't have a backup and then a backup for that backup. (Even the Apollo 13 mission, which had a catastrophic explosion on its way to the Moon, was able to to find a way to keep the astronauts alive even though filters were the wrong shape, using duct tape and ingenuity.) When a desperate attempt to get oxygen is made, its result requires the audience to accept that something we saw done before suddenly wasn't.

It's a shame that Stowaway falters so badly on the story and character side because the technical aspects are spot on. The ship looks like a real spaceship, not a movie spaceship like the one in Life, and the science depicted, like the artificial gravity generated by centrifugal spinning of the ship with a booster rocket counterweight, is accurate and there are some, pardon the pun, sequences which will have you holding your breath.

Score: 5/10. Skip it. 


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