Stowaway (2021)

“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

A Simple Favor (2018)

Paul Feig is a strange animal. Freaks and Geeks is classic television, Bridesmaids is certainly popular even though I couldn’t quite get into it, and I’m probably one of the eight people in the world who saw Other Space, and I really, really enjoyed it (I’m still over here waiting for Karan Soni to really and truly break out). Never was Paul Feig’s eccentricity more clear to me than in the recent (all-too-brief) resurgence of The Soup under the Netflix banner as The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale. Feig, who was a producer of TJMSWJM, appeared in every single episode. There was a lot that was . . . off about TJMSWJM. The Soup‘s recurring characters appeared organically as part of sketches and happened to reappear only if there was a reason or they struck a chord with the audience, while TJMSWJM seemed to be forcing new characters onto the show without any rhyme or reason and segments like “That Happened,” while occasionally funny, were completely tone deaf about who the show’s demographic was and who they wanted to appeal to. If there was one element of The Soup that I would have forsaken when rebooting, it would have been the once-per-episode celebrity appearances; TJMSWJM actually compounded this problem, as each time Feig appeared on screen, the show ground to a halt (although I did get a kick out of him using the money gun in the finale). I like him, I think that he has a great sense of humor, and you’d be hard pressed to find a white man in the business who is so consistently and effectively using his privilege to promote women in the industry, but I also feel that he has the problem that some comedians I know personally have, which is an inability to recognize when something doesn’t quite work. In short, I’m not sure that Feig knows how to kill his darlings.

A Simple Favor is one of his least uneven films. There are still some comedic moments in it that feel very out of place; the worst offender in the film comes at the conclusion, when a comic bit of action happens and a very minor character reappears to say a terrible line, which is then followed by several much-better lines from our main characters. It stands out because, for the most part, the comic timing in the film is pretty perfect, but when it clunks, it clunks hard, in a way that is more noticeable than in some of his other work since this one is much more intricately plotted.

Widowed single mother Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) is a mommy vlogger whose son Miles befriends his classmate Nicky, which leads to Stephanie entering into an unequal friendship with Emily Nelson (Blake Lively, giving the best performance of her career). Emily is the PR manager for a fashion house that is run by your standard fashion mogul type, and her ultramodern home, huge income, hands-off parenting, hard drinking, and high fashion conflict with Stephanie’s tendency to commit to every school event, her recognition that her late husband’s insurance money will soon run out, and her felt-and-pompom arts and crafts aesthetic (although she does wear this cat study Anthropologie apron, which I recognized because don’t ask, so she’s more “Hollywood broke” than “real world poor”). Emily’s husband Sean (Crazy Rich Asians‘s Henry Golding) is a failed writer who teaches at a local institution, although Stephanie read his only novel as part of her book club years before. As their friendship grows (at least on Stephanie’s part), Emily elicits a dark secret from Stephanie under the guise of compassion and interest before asking her to pick up both boys one afternoon. Then Emily . . . disappears.

The police initially suspect Sean, but his alibi is solid. When evidence starts to point toward suicide, Stephanie refuses to believe it and launches into her own investigation, winding into and out of the lives of such disparate people as Sean’s T.A. (Melissa O’Neil, who I’ve been sorely missing since the unfortunate cancellation of Dark Matter), a painter who was once Emily’s lover (the ever-wonderful Linda Cardellini), and Emily’s dementia-afflicted mother (Jean Smart, always a pleasure). Her investigation leads her to the offices of fashion magnate Dennis Nylon, a Christian summer camp, a burned-out wing of a formerly glorious mansion, and even Emily’s gravesite. Emily–if that’s even her name–was not who she seemed to be. But then again, maybe Stephanie isn’t either . . .

Multiple reviews of A Simple Favor have drawn comparisons to the 2014 thriller Gone Girl, and with good reason, especially given that the film’s marketing seems to place it firmly in the largely humorless thriller genre (if there’s any way to describe Gone Girl, “humorless” is pretty high up there on the list). What appears to be taking audiences by surprise is A Simple Favor‘s comedic lightheartedness amidst all the sociopathy, implied and explicit violence, half-incest, debatable paternity, and arson. There’s a lot going on, but it’s never overwhelming, and if you’ve ever seen one of these movies before then there will be revelations that will lead you say, “Oh, I know where this is going,” and then the film promptly goes there. Regardless, there are still a few surprises buried in its bones, and the performances are strong enough to carry the film even when it seems to be simply following the outline of thrillers of this ilk. As noted above, this is probably the first film in which I’ve really been thrilled by a performance from Lively; I know that her shark movie was well received around these parts, but after Oliver Stone’s Savages I had no interest in another Lively vehicle. She’s really dynamic here, and it’s fantastic.

The only real problems in the film are the moments in which the comedy doesn’t land. Unfortunately, it’s the more ostentatious (and dare I say more Feigian) humor that thuds lifelessly on screen, and unfortunately those moments are more memorable than the praiseworthy subtle humor that’s woven throughout. Still, the actors and the French pop music lift the film when the plot starts to flail, and it would be a mistake to let this curiosity slip into obscurity without giving it a watch.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Voices (2015)

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Comedy is risky. If you fail to connect with your audience the time you spend together can be brutal. Just ask any stand-up who’s bombed a set. That disconnect between audience & performer can be even more punishing if the material is aggressive. To succeed, a horror comedy has to find humor in sadism & cruelty and it takes a well-balanced, lighthearted tone to pull that off properly. Curiously enough, The Voices fails even though it nails that balance. There’s a playful party vibe to the movie (complete with a conga line) that counteracts its homicidal maniac narrative very well, achieving the exact kind of tonal balance a horror comedy typically needs to succeed. That makes it all the more frustrating that I just didn’t find it funny and, by extension, didn’t enjoy the movie outside of an occasional chuckle.

The main problem for me personally might just be an over-saturation of Ryan Reynolds. There is just so much Reynolds in the movie. He not only plays the central serial killer protagonist, but also provides the voices that the killer hears in his head, voices he attributes to his cat & dog. The idea of a talking cat & dog inspiring the crimes of a crazed killer sound like it could be played laughs rather well, but it just fails to reach anything approaching humor in The Voices. It’s not that I have anything particular against Ryan Reynolds in general. He has a natural smarm to his charisma that makes him an effective cad in films like Adventureland & Waiting, but whenever he’s supposed to be a likeable protagonist I fail to connect. That connection is made even more difficult here by the hurdles of him playing both a murderer of women and house cat with a Scottish accent. There’s some backstory to his killer protagonist’s childhood, which was plagued by an abusive father & a mother who also heard voices (attributed to angels instead of pets in her case), but it does little to make him likeable or his murderous antics amusing. Much of the film plays as if in Tucker & Dale Vs Evil Tucker & Dale turned out to be coldblooded, homicidal bullies but you were supposed to root for them anyway.

The English-language debut of Persepolis-director Marjane Satrapi, The Voices has so much going for it. Saptari provides the film a delicious living-cartoon setting, a playful atmosphere, and Disney-esque hallucinations that made the tonally similar (but much more amusing & less “on the nose”) Miss Meadows enjoyable, but here it’s all for naught. Even the adorably dorky charisma of Anna Kendrick couldn’t save the film from its core problem of being a failed comedy with an unlikeable ham protagonist. When comedies don’t work there’s just no way for an audience to enjoy themselves. I wish I could’ve laughed at the dialogue coming from Reynolds’ talking pets; I wanted to find them hilarious. Instead I was blankly staring at their stupid, little CGI mouths and hoping for the run time to be over quickly. I’m sure there are plenty of people who will be laughing right along with The Voices’ admirable brand of goofy, black humor, but it’ll be a total chore for whoever finds themselves watching in silence, unamused. Trust me.

-Brandon Ledet