TL;DR – Three astronauts on a mission to Mars discover an accidental stowaway. This wouldn’t be a problem except the stowaway permanently damaged the CO2 scrubbers on the ship. Without the scrubbers there isn’t enough oxygen to support all four crew.
Review (warning: spoilers)
There are no aliens aboard the ship looking to kill the crew. There is not an artificial intelligence that becomes ‘evil’ and starts manipulating the humans to turn on each other. There are no lightsabers, and this is not the Millennium Falcon that can hyperjump from one planet to another. If you are expecting any of these sci-fi elements then Stowaway is not the movie for you.
Instead, Stowaway seeks to be grounded in actual science (or at least, theoretical science) and uses all the real threats of outer space to demonstrate the dangers of space travel. A suitable balance is achieved between plot progression and explaining the mechanics of the crew’s ship and the physics of space to allow the watcher to be absorbed.
Our intrepid crew is comprised of Commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim) and medical researcher Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick). The purpose of their mission is to make the two-year round trip to the colony on Mars to cultivate David’s algae and plants on the red planet before returning home.
The opening scene throws us right into the thick of it as we sit in the cockpit with the crew as they lift off. The turbulence and the amount of g-force they experience is captured on screen and on the crew’s expressions as they climb altitude and eventually break the earth’s atmosphere. It is an absorbing bit of film making as you will feel every rattle of your bones inside your body and find it difficult to keep your breath steady.
A lovely bit of physics and aeronautical engineering is then shown as the main rocket booster known as the ‘Kingfisher’ detaches with 450m long cables that are connected to the ship’s main hull and a tethered gravity spin is initiated. I’m no physicist but I understand the basic premise is that to achieve artificial gravity in space, the ship containing the crew is spun around a central axis (i.e., the main hull) and a counterweight (i.e., the Kingfisher) spins on the other end. Again, the cinematography of this sequence is brilliant and even experienced astronauts can succumb to the inertia as depicted by David who proceeds to throw up extensively into his vomit bag.
Everything goes smoothly until Marina discovers an engineer, Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson) unconscious inside a part of the ship that houses the CO2 scrubber. How he managed to survive take-off is anyone’s guess, and it’s not clear how he could have been unaccounted for before the launch.
The movie could have then gone one of two ways. It could have turned into a dark psychological thriller with the audience unsure if Michael stowed away intentionally and is looking to sabotage the mission for reasons only he knows. Or it could be a genuine accident and now the crew of four have to figure out how to move forward. Thankfully, it is the latter (I didn’t want to watch another Event Horizon horror sci-fi unfold), and the driving dilemma that they confront is the CO2 scrubbers have been damaged beyond repair and there is only enough oxygen for three people.
Check that, there is only enough oxygen for two people to make the journey to Mars. But an unreliable solution is created to support three when David sacrifices all his algae and plant research to try and have them act as ‘scrubbers’. The story then becomes one of sacrifice and the varying views of the crew on what to do. They have ten days (which in itself is a margin of error and puts the entire crew at risk) to figure out if there is a way to save Michael.
Zoe and David have differing, but no less empathetic, views. When Michael is told by David the full situation, Michael understands that he needs to be the one to make the sacrifice. However, Zoe convinces him to hold on to hope.
In a last ditch effort, Zoe and David risk traversing the tethers to the Kingfisher to try and salvage oxygen from the tanks contained within. Commander Marina can’t do it because earlier in the film when she discovers Michael in the ceiling, he falls on her arm breaking it. So, now she’s in a cast and has no way of doing the job herself.
Zoe and David manage to get one tank of oxygen. They need two to have enough for all four of them to survive the trip to Mars, but a solar flare warning sounds and they are forced to rush back before the storm hits them with its deadly radiation.
In their haste, Zoe’s descent back to the ship is too fast and she loses the one tank of oxygen. It’s a devastating moment as they are now back to square one. Whatever oxygen is in the Kingfisher is now leaking out, and no one knows how long the solar flare storm will last.
The crew sit together, emotionally wrung dry and distraught, and mentally willing for some sort of miracle. But there is none. In space, there cannot be mistakes, and unfortunately, this mission has been riddled with them.
Zoe makes the ultimate sacrifice and ends up traversing the tethers once more to get one remaining tank of oxygen knowing it’s a suicide mission. The scene is almost magical as solar rays rush over her in waves, but we know in fact that Zoe is being bombarded by enough radiation that she cannot possibly survive.
The film ends with her depositing the oxygen tank for the other three and then sitting outside the ship, her breathing becoming more shallow, her suit slowly being burnt by the rays, and her sight focused on the tiny red dot that is Mars.
The audience has to make their own conclusion as to whether Marina, David and Michael make it as the credits roll. It is all a dire affair and more a shoestring sci-fi film than a full blown story such as The Martian or Interstellar.
I enjoyed the film primarily because of the stunning cinematography and special effects along with the humanity of the characters. This is a story of survival and when viewed from that lens, it delivers.
8 out of 10