M, 117 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

There’s a scene in The Crown on TV where Prince Phillip has the crew of Apollo 11 from the first moon landing round for tea. The Prince, always up for adventure himself, was anticipating a chat with awesome, real-life heroes, until it dawns on him that the men were just doing their job.

The astronauts were motivated by their instructions. There was little individual initiative after all, and what they did was by the book. The clean-cut, earnest trio topped with buzz cuts, were difficult to distinguish one from the other.

It’s probably way closer to the truth than the motley crew aboard the space mission in this edgy new science fiction drama from Brazilian director Joe Penna.

The filmmaker, with a background as a musician and YouTuber, has one other feature credit to his name. Arctic, starred Mads Mikkelsen as a man stranded and alone in a snow-bound wilderness. It was also co-written with Ryan Morrison.

In Penna’s Stowaway, the crew of astronauts are far from clones. They comprise a terse, female commander, a sensitive, idealistic young female medical researcher, and an introverted, task-driven biologist. Commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), Dr Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) and David Kim (Korean-born actor Daniel Dae Kim) make for an interesting mix of gender and ethnicity.

Collette skilfully manages to keep her business-like character believable and empathetic

The smart, tight script reveals other personal dimensions. Space rookie Zoe, for instance, recalls how she applied to join the mission, fully expecting to miss out but counting on a good yarn about a noble failure.

The launch that opens the film and the interior of a spaceship into which the crew spill afterwards looks convincing. Every square centimetre of space, every surface has a purpose. Until, when Marina, Zoe and Dave are doing their rounds checking instrumentation, an unconscious, wounded stranger drops in from the roof space.

Shamier Anderson and Anna Kendrick in Stowaway. Courtesy: Netflix

It’s a ground support engineer, Michael Adams, (black Canadian actor Shamier Anderson). He was accidentally trapped in the infrastructure before the launch.

His presence and the air filter he damaged inadvertently will mean there isn’t enough oxygen to go around, and that they will all perish before they even arrive on Mars.

Our imagination has already jumped to various conclusions. That Michael either represents something untoward, or that he was been planted there to sabotage Hyperion’s mission. Not so.

Michael’s backstory about a kid sister back home to whom he is legal guardian ensures he has audience sympathy. The steely captain who places the mission above everything is perhaps less engaging.

Yet Collette skilfully manages to keep her business-like character both believable and empathetic. Her role is to lead, the success of the entire mission weighs on her alone. Her airy ‘See you in two years’ to ground control at the launch indicates there is a very long road ahead at peak performance level before she can relax. The mission to Mars is her third and final mission.

When Marina says ‘Go for launch’ it is a surprise to hear it delivered in Collette’s Australian accent, that has always been  subsumed up till now by American overlay. It’s a rather flat and harsh Aussie accent, but the lack of inflection suits her turn as mission commander.

surely the spaceship’s artificial intelligence would have detected something alien on board

Stowaway is enhanced by a very effective immersive soundtrack and score by Volker Bertelmann. The rhythm of the pacing from the editing by co-writer Morrison, also draws you in.

The look is not brilliant. An aesthetically interesting look is something we have come to expect in space sci-fi since the spellbinding 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. Gravity certainly delivered great visuals as well.

The rivetting sci-fi drama Moon managed to get away with a gritty aesthetic, but seemed of a piece in a drama about an astronaut alone, abandoned and desperate.

One other point. Having a stranger on board in Stowaway with the potential to abort the mission, in one way or other, is a great device for getting the drama going.

But surely the spaceship’s artificial intelligence would have detected something alien on board, and let the crew and ground control know immediately?

I’m sure that AI or some other systems would stop something like this happening, but the question that it raises absolutely doesn’t get in the way of a good drama.

First published in the Canberra Times on 1 May 2021