From the first three acts of “2001: A Space Odyssey” to Matt Damon stayin’ alive in “The Martian,” there’s a respectable strain of science fiction in which the science clearly matters more than the fiction. With no star wars to be fought or acid-breathing aliens to outwit, such movies prioritize possibility over fear, pushing boundaries and putting outer space within arm’s reach — perhaps none more than “Gravity” a few years back.
That’s almost certainly the movie Joe Penna and Ryan Morrison had in mind when they wrote “Stowaway,” a reasonably plausible if snore-inducing Netflix thriller about an elite three-seat research mission to Mars jeopardized by the discovery of an unexpected passenger. With no way of turning back and just enough resources for the original trio’s survival, the crew faces a tough moral puzzle — the kind of philosophical conundrum that drives late-night dorm-room debates: either lose one person or problem-solve a strategy to generate enough oxygen for everybody.
There’s also the mystery of who this stowaway is and how he wound up on the ship in the first place, although the movie makes surprisingly little of such intrigues. Here, the characters seek solutions rather than further complications. As suspense scenarios go, this one is about as exciting as watching hangry castaways ration coconuts on a desert island — which is surprising, since Penna and Morrison made more from less in their 2018 human-against-nature debut, “Arctic,” which pitted Mads Mikkelsen against a polar bear.
Like that film, “Stowaway” serves as an exercise in creativity within constraints: Except for the climactic spacewalk, the entire movie takes place aboard the Hyperion MTS-42, a vessel of such economic design, there’s no spare gear with which to fix anything should it go on the fritz — such as the CDRA, or Carbon Dioxide Removal Assembly.
It’s not hard to imagine a minimalist version of “Stowaway” being performed onstage, or executed for a fraction of the budget spent here, though CG space-scapes peeped outside the portholes amplify the sense that the astronauts have only themselves to rely on. The ship’s crew consists of captain Marina Barnett (a stone-cold Toni Collette) and a pair of scientists, Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick, slightly jokey) and David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim, somewhere in between), selected for the two-year mission — plus the stranger (Shamier Anderson).
In that other, more fantastical kind of sci-fi, audiences could safely assume that at least a couple of these characters had been invented in order to be eliminated, with grisly pleasure taken in their exits. But “Stowaway” is committed to saving the entire crew, if possible, making for a relatively sober-minded experience.
Once the life-support apparatus konks out, resident biologist David taps into his algae stockpile, using the green goo to rig an organic air-purification system — a sacrifice that means he won’t have any raw material to experiment with if/when they manage to reach Mars. Ethics-minded medical doctor Zoe can’t accept the guilt of sacrificing anyone to save the group, so she suggests a daring maneuver to tap into a liquid oxygen tank on the opposite end of the spinning space station. Meanwhile, Marina conducts herself like the responsible parent, asking her superiors back at Hyperion home base to suggest additional alternatives.
The three astronauts powwow apart from the intruder, agreeing to defy orders a few extra days while they try to solve the predicament. That’s noble but anti-dramatic, as the movie’s ticking clock is already moving too slowly for the pressure to feel tangible. Zoe’s idea is by far the most cinematic, suggesting some “Gravity”-style space action that’s dull, considering the stakes: Penna gives two characters the chance to suit up and climb the skyscraper-tall structure, a challenge that feels as psychologically taxing as it is physically so.
“What would you do?” the movie seems to be asking, though it doesn’t provide enough information for the audience to do much brainstorming. As such, instead of thinking science, we’re liable to pick at the story, imagining what Penna might have done to make it more engaging. His premise shows promise, but the characters lack character, and as such, the mind drifts, like George Clooney turning cartwheels into the void. The four actors are all likable enough, but in emphasizing professionalism over personality, the movie makes them seem dull and duty-bound, as opposed to heroic. They don’t need to be full-blown space cowboys, but as “The Right Stuff” writer Tom Wolfe understood, a little color goes a long way in making us care about those who suit up for such missions.
Of the four passengers, the one we learn the most about is the stowaway, who has extensive scarring on his torso and a younger sister back home he feels guilty about abandoning — a responsibility that seems to weigh heavier on him than his own fate. Given how tiresome they become after just two hours, it’s hard to imagine spending two years aboard a space vessel with any combination of these characters, and that’s a problem no amount of oxygen can solve.