“They sure don’t make [X] like they used to” is something that I either never tire of hearing or can’t stand to hear someone say, depending upon who’s making the statement and what they’re complaining about. “They sure don’t make gender theory like they used to” is a statement that could go either way, varying wildly depending on whether it’s a radical person at your local DSA meeting or a talking head on any news outlet. “They sure don’t make Confederate monuments like they used to” is a delight to hear if the person saying it is pleased, but would be a huge red (and treasonous) flag if the speaker is wistful for the days when they could indulge in their Lost Cause nonsense without inspection. Nothing in life is ever really stable, but one thing that they’re still making just like they used to are contemporary(ish) medium-to-hard sci-fi dramas about Things Going Wrong in Space.
Medical researcher Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) originally applied for a position with space exploration agency Hyperion because she thought that “I was rejected by Hyperion” would be a funny story to tell at parties. To her surprise, she was accepted for a position for a two-year Mars mission, alongside biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim), whose work revolves around the possibility of using algae as a feasible atmosphere conversion medium. Leading the mission is Commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), for whom this is a bittersweet journey, as it marks her third and final interplanetary trip. Their ship, the MTS-42, has an interesting configuration: the upper stage booster remains attached to the ship proper by a tether, and using centrifugal interia, provides artificial gravity for the crew. After a bumpy takeoff, the astronauts get down to the business of making the journey to Mars, but it turns out that this was no run-of-the-mill shaky departure: the ship’s weight is off due to the presence of Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson), a support engineer working as part of Hyperion’s ground crew, who was caught between two modules and trapped aboard the vessel. Worse still, his presence has inadvertently damaged the ship’s carbon dioxide scrubbers, which are needed to ensure a breathable atmosphere for the astronauts and their accidental stowaway for the entirety of their journey.
Although Stowaway is set in the not-too-distant future, as evidenced by the way that a trip to Mars is treated as a semi-regular aeroscience practice and the lack of a NASA presence (Hyperion is never identified as a government agency or a private corporation; its international crew implies the latter but the genuine concern that home base demonstrates regarding the lives of its astronauts implies the former). It’s still part of the genealogy of films that can trace their ancestry back to The Right Stuff but were defined as a genre by Apollo 13: realistic space dangers. Stowaway doesn’t break the mold that also created The Martian and Gravity, but it’s also not really breaking the mold of Tom Godwin’s 1954 short story “The Cold Equations,” from which it draws its primary dilemma. “Equations,” which itself draws inspiration from works going back to the nineteenth century, takes its title from the calculations needed when a starfaring vessel whose margins of error are very small finds those margins exceeded by a stowaway (an intentional one in that text), in order to determine if there’s a way for both pilot and passenger to survive. There isn’t; the stowaway passenger in “Equations” makes the ultimate sacrifice upon realizing that her actions, however well-intentioned if poorly-informed, threaten the lives of an entire colony.
That it fails to break that mold isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however. “The Cold Equations” is considered a classic sci-fi story with values that resonate across time for a reason. Stowaway also circumvents two potential problems with updates to the central conflict of “Equations” as well: the ship in “Equations” is pretty clearly in violation of common sense safety standards (it was published 16 years before OSHA went into effect, after all) by failing to provide for even the smallest margin of error, and the teenaged stowaway intentionally boarded the vessel to see her brother. In Stowaway, we instead have an engineer who was accidentally injured and knocked unconscious before being sealed behind a panel prior to liftoff, meaning that he is an innocent in this situation; secondly, it’s not merely a matter that the ship can’t support more than three people, but that the scrubbers that are the safety precaution and could enable them to make it to Mars with an extra person on board are damaged. Every attempt is made to find another solution, including using the algae from Kim’s experiment to try and produce sufficient oxygen to make the rest of the flight, and a daring and thrilling climb across the tether to the second stage booster to collect any remaining oxygen from its tanks in an attempt to extend MTS-42’s atmospheric supply until they reach Mars, but ultimately, just as in “Equations,” not everyone will make it out alive.
Stowaway isn’t likely to blow the average audience member away. Its appeal lies largely in its similarity to what’s come before in the Things Going Wrong in Space genre and applying hard contemporary science to its familiar plot, but therein lies its weakness; there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen before. The minimal cast is strongly composed, but although no one’s phoning it in, everyone involved knows that this isn’t their opus, so it’s no one’s career best performance either. Anderson is a standout, given that he’s the least seasoned cast member, and Kendrick manages charm and gravitas in equal measures in a rare non-comedic role. I have a feeling that this would play better on the big screen; I certainly remember being captivated by Gravity and Interstellar while watching them in theaters, and Stowaway has sequences that feel stifled on my TV at home. Hopefully, we’ll see writer-director Joe Penna’s next feature large and beautiful, but in the meantime, this one’s on Netflix if you’re itching for a near-future sci-fi tragedy.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond