Ethical Dilemmas, by Bob Connally

28 Apr

Science fiction stories inherently ask audiences to suspend their disbelief, but good sci-fi storytellers know that while they are allowed to ask us to accept an improbable or even impossible premise, that there must be a sense of reality to prop it all upon. Stowaway director Joe Penna and co-writer Ryan Morrison thankfully understands this. What they have crafted is a nicely realized sci-fi film that is far more interested in moral dilemmas and inviting the audience into the situation at hand than it is in heady abstract ideas.

The first manned mission to Mars has just taken off with a crew of three. Commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette) is the one experienced astronaut while biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim) and medical researcher Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) are along to conduct scientific research throughout the mission and upon their arrival on Mars. There’s a smoothness to the beginning of the mission and tranquility as they settle into their duties that gives all three a sense of calm as their two-year mission gets underway. However, within a few hours, they discover an unconscious man who had been trapped inside a compartment on the ship. Upon waking, the man, Michael (Shamier Anderson) understandably panics, unsure of how he ended up aboard. His most immediate concern is for his younger sister with special needs who will have no one at home to take care of her. This simple bit of information subtly establishes what Stowaway is truly interested in. In the hands of other filmmakers, Michael’s appearance could be the start of a horror movie filled with madness, parasites, and ultimately a trail of blood on the ship. Instead, it’s the story of four people who have to figure out how to spend the next two years in space on a ship that was only meant to carry three and what that means for their onboard oxygen supply. It’s about the moral implications of needing to make an unthinkable decision and how each character approaches the situation in their own way.

Penna and Morrison’s screenplay focuses on character dynamics while Penna’s direction gradually ratchets up the sense of tension bit by bit with ever-increasing stakes. As Stowaway only features four characters in one environment, their interactions with one another feel as though more weight is being added with each one. This is particularly true when they are confronted with the inevitability of a tragic and horrifying reality. Each actor brings a believability to his or her role, but it’s Kendrick who stands out the most here. Known primarily for her comic and singing talents, this is worlds away from Pitch Perfect while still feeling like it’s right in her wheelhouse. Her Zoe is the movie’s moral center and the person we all wish we could be in this terrible situation. There’s no self-righteousness, she just displays the heart that we’d like to believe we would. This is Kendrick’s best work since at least Up in the Air and maybe ever. Marina and David meanwhile, while certainly not heartless, each attempt to look at the situation in a more coldly realistic way. Michael for his part is kept in the dark and Anderson is wonderfully believable. The crew tries to find odd jobs for him to do to allow himself to keep busy and feel useful and he’s the real audience surrogate here. His scenes with Kendrick and separately with Kim are especially affecting.

While Stowaway is not terribly reminiscent of Star Trek in many ways, it does share a key element at its core. The best Star Trek stories focus on how people deal with moral and ethical issues in a science fiction setting. Stowaway does this terrifically while also delivering very well executed tension and suspense.

Stowaway is a Netflix original production, so it is available to watch at home with your subscription now.

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