Stowaway review – a devastating dilemma drives tense Netflix sci-fi

<span>Photograph: AP</span>
Photograph: AP

Ever since Sandra Bullock MacGyver’d her way from mid-orbit chaos back down to earth in Alfonso Cuarón’s show-stopping thriller Gravity, we’ve seen a rise in briskly efficient sci-fi competency porn. It’s a subgenre of films working off the thrill of watching high-stakes problem-solving, of professionals using their reality-rooted smarts to deal with fantastical situations. We’ve since seen Matt Damon use botany in The Martian, Amy Adams use linguistics in Arrival, Natalie Portman use cellular biology in Annihilation and Chris Pratt use Jennifer Lawrence in the unintentionally creepy Passengers. Just a few months after Netflix ventured into similar territory with George Clooney’s business first, emotion later drama The Midnight Sky, they’re taking us up into the stars with Stowaway, a late stage acquisition title that should scratch that itch a little more successfully.

Related: Sitting in a tin can: why sci-fi films are finally telling astronaut life like it is

There’s something satisfyingly straight-to-the-point about the film, from musician turned director Joe Penna, following up his breakout debut Arctic with another no frills survival tale. The first scene launches us into the action along with three astronauts (Anna Kendrick, Daniel Dae Kim and Toni Collette) headed on a two year mission to Mars. Soon after takeoff, they encounter an unlikely surprise: a stowaway (Shamier Anderson), an engineer who was injured and knocked out during launch prep, now along with them for the ride. Initial shock soon turns to panic as the destruction of an air filtration device means that there is only enough oxygen for three of them to survive.

Despite some sly strings early on in Hauschka’s moody score suggesting otherwise, Penna chooses not to take us into Hitchcockian psychological thriller territory and instead keeps us firmly in the realm of so-called “hard sci-fi”, as the crew is forced to confront the logistics of a devastating dilemma with time not on their side. Solutions are believably scarce. Can Kim’s biologist find a way to make his algae produce enough oxygen? Can Collette’s commander work with on-the-ground support to find the science to save them? Can Kendrick’s medical researcher convince them that a death-defying mission might be worth the risk? It’s all laid out, at least to a layman such as I, in what feels like convincingly terse terms, perhaps with a great deal of gratitude owed to YouTuber and astrophysicist Scott Manley who advised on the script, helping Penna and co-writer Ryan Morrison nail the specifics. This concerted effort to ground what’s taking place up in the sky makes it all that much more involving, a feeling that nothing is being sacrificed for the sake of storytelling, no patronising over-explanation, just the realities of an agonising scenario, unfolding at a steady pace.

It’s a setting that works well for Collette especially, easily emerging as the film’s MVP, allowed for once to use her Australian accent, persuasively beleaguered as the commander wrestling with her conscience and the ramifications of what might happen. For a star so recognisable, she’s always excelled the most at portraying the grind of the everyday, of unglamorous hard work and often unrewarded emotional labour and she’s so good in this particular iteration of that type that one wants even more of her, as if her character might spin off into a TV series filled with similarly knotty situations for her to think a way out of. The other crew members are solid, particularly Anderson who has arguably the hardest role to play, forced in an effectively dour moment to consider a drastic sacrifice. There’s rarely a moment for levity, despite us being told that Kendrick is playing “in-flight entertainment”, and a refreshingly small amount of backstory gap-filling monologues. The focus on the job at hand works until it doesn’t as with just the slightest of characterisation, we’re invested in the problem rather than those solving it and the grip of the first two acts loosens as the finale beckons.

Trying to sustain this tension for almost two hours proves an impossible task, and while there are still seat-edge moments from the big set piece that closes the film out, it’s just a bit too conventional in how it plays out and draws an immediate and ultimately damning comparison to Gravity. Because while the production design of the ship, sleekly explored with a number of impressively extended shots, might impress, the exterior action is not quite as stellar, and although Stowaway does end on a theoretically brave note, it’s also a regrettably abrupt one. We’re left a little adrift, the film ending less on a high or low and more of a huh?

  • Stowaway is now available on Netflix