“Stowaway” Puts Morality in the Driver’s Seat on its Way to Mars

When one person’s existence jeopardizes the lives of all on-board, issues of ethics take the wheel in Joe Penna’s stunning sophomoric feat.

Warning: Spoilers

For a film about space that never explicitly explains the goal of the mission, there was hardly a moment I wasn’t engaged with the action, or lack thereof, on screen. It was quickly evident that this film was not about the mission (something about algae samples?) or even space, really. It was about people, dire situations, and difficult choices.

Stowaway, directed by Joe Penna, felt very much like a play, in that it takes place in a single location and has just four characters. While many films set in space employ science fiction elements and flashy technical aspects or rely on a post-apocalyptic narrative to move the story along, Stowaway’s central theme is life, and which three of its four main characters, deserve it most.

I’ll admit that I hadn’t heard of this film until it was recommended to me by Netflix, but when I saw the cast—Toni Collette, Daniel Dae Kim, Anna Kendrick, and Shamier Anderson—I was all in. What’s more is that this film features two women, as the crew captain (Collette) and medical researcher and physician (Kendrick), an Asian-American man as the crew’s biologist (Dae Kim), and a black man as the launch support engineer and stowaway (Anderson). Not a single white male in sight. A welcomed departure from the [white] male-dominated crews that we typically get in less thoughtful films of this kind.

Penna is anything but thoughtless. He’s unconcerned with giving us another alien-forward space thriller, or a drama about the harrowing journey to another planet, he’s interested in the nature of human behavior. The spaceship and space itself simply serve as the backdrop for a larger ethical dilemma.

When Michael (Anderson) is found by Marina (Collette) in a compartment of the ship, injured and bleeding, nearly 12 hours after takeoff, we begin to see who he and the other people on board are. Marina swiftly seeks the medical expertise of Zoe (Kendrick), who accesses his injuries and determines he’ll be okay. With Michael out of the woods, he’s hit by the overwhelming realization that he’s no longer on Earth, but aboard a ship bound for Mars that won’t be returning for two years. His thoughts quickly turn to his disabled sister, for whom he’s been caring, and who cannot be left on her own. He pleads with Marina to take him home, but she explains it’s impossible.

After getting Hyperion, the space corporation whose flight this is, to agree to provide a caregiver to his disabled sister, Michael’s mind eases and he’s able to accept his situation. He assumes a helpful role, contending that if he’s going to be there, he’s going to be a contributing member of the team in whatever capacity he can. Despite a rough start, it looks like smooth sailing ahead.

Except that it’s not.

Marina discovers that the ship’s CDRA—the device responsible for scraping carbon dioxide out of the air—was damaged beyond repair during takeoff and that they are slowly but surely running out of oxygen. They won’t reach Mars for five months, and the existing oxygen can’t sustain four people until then, but it can sustain three. And the dilemma becomes clear. One must die for the good of the group, but who?

Marina discusses the issue with David (Dae Kim), and together they decide that Michael, being the only non-crucial member of the team, should die. When Zoe catches wind of the situation, she’s horrified and appalled at how quickly they’ve come to a decision about ending one of their lives. She convinces Marina to give them ten days to figure out an alternate plan, and as it turns out, they can spare ten days, so she agrees.

After just three days, David takes it upon himself to have a chat with Michael about the situation. He suggests their idea to him in not so many words, to which Michael is stunned. We can feel his sense of hopelessness wash over the screen. It should be noted that none of these characters come across as malicious. They simply understand the situation in front of them and are trying their best to rationalize given the facts. I never got a sense that David wanted Michael to die, only that someone had to in order for the remainder to survive and that he was the logical choice. On the other hand, I didn’t see him volunteering for the position, so there’s also that to consider.

On the opposite side of the emotional spectrum, is Zoe. She doesn’t see Michael as the weakest link in the crew, she sees him as a fellow human being deserving of life. She can’t willingly accept anyone’s death if they can do something about it, and as such, she and the other crew members hatch a plan to check if there’s any liquid oxygen left over from liftoff. This results in a harrowing, albeit spectacular, journey outside in which she and David must climb along a tether from one end of the ship to the other and back again with any viable oxygen tanks.

This vertigo-inducing, heart-pounding sequence is both gorgeous and terrifying to behold, and while you might expect something to go wrong, nothing can prepare you for what these people, most notably Zoe, are willing to do for the greater good on both a physical and emotional level. Both beautiful and tragic, the final shot of this film is one that will haunt me for a long time to come.

I would call Stowaway a drama above all else, but there is definitely a thriller aspect to it once we learn what’s at stake. It’s a subtle, emotional, and thought-provoking story that cares about its characters and makes them relatable. Among their laundry list of accolades and qualifications, these characters feel deeply human and emotionally present.

Stowaway is unassuming in approach, while at the same time, totally compassionate, captivating, and thrilling. The final shot of the film is something akin to the final sequence in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, in that it’s unsettling, leaving us with the inevitability of what’s to come. All the while, we’re also left questioning whether this was the only outcome that ever existed and forced to think about our own mortality and code of ethics.

Stowaway is streaming now on Netflix.

Just another movie-obsessed writer with a lot of opinions.