Netflix’s new space opera revolves around a journey to Mars. The trailer is full of life-threatening catastrophes, stern faces, average jokes and riotously stirring music. Someone mumbles, “This is hopeless!” Took the words right out of my mouth.
Ignore that trailer. Joe Penna’s debut, Arctic, was a meticulous and suspenseful survival-story starring Mads Mikkelsen. Stowaway, it turns out, is just as intricate and immersive.
Toni Collette is seasoned ship commander, Marina Barnett. She and two scientists, Zoe and David (Anna Kendrick and Daniel Dae Kim) are going to the red planet in hopes of laying the groundwork for a colony.
Marina’s as cool, calm and collected as Alien’s Ripley. In other words, this is a wo-manned mission and all is going well till Marina discovers another person on board, a young engineer, Michael (Shamier Anderson). If the team can’t lay their hands on more oxygen, someone needs to die - or they all will.
Stowaway is science fiction, but Penna and his co-writer, Ryan Morrison, clearly adore science facts. The stuff spouted by David re: microgreens, algae and “CO2 scrubbing” is based on up-to-date research. True, if you’re really and truly spoddy, you’ll roll your eyes at some of the imprecise language. David, referring to Martian brine, says “We’ll split oxygen out of that!” But let’s not split hairs. Those who suffered through Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars will just be relieved no anorexic aliens pop up for a meet and greet.
There’s also an interesting subtext to the dialogue. Michael is a foreign body. An immigrant, if you will. He doesn’t want to be a burden and relishes the idea of being put to work. Yet Marina makes clear that, because he hasn’t been trained for this mission, “he can’t contribute in any meaningful way”. We’re used to Hollywood movies in which inexperienced underdogs, through sheer determination, become masters of their own destiny. It’s bold of Penna to mess with that formula. Then again, because Anderson is so charismatic, you want his part to be bigger. Whatever, this performance will definitely launch him into the big league.
Kendrick is solid and her panicky breathing, at one point, is out of this world. As for Collette, Marina’s dry-mouthed distress is wrenching. And Kim – as delicately rugged as Mikkelsen – ensures Coltrane-loving David is so much more than a mansplaining jazz bore.
There are umpteen lovely visual details to savour. Planet Earth looks great and – as in Gravity and George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky – there are times when Stowaway inadvertently functions as propaganda for the next big thing in travel. Like the look of that view? Why not book a ticket now?
117mins, cert 12. Netflix