There’s a famous story from the 1950s called The Cold Equations. In it, a little girl is discovered hidden on a space ship that cannot sustain the lives of both her and the rest of the crew, thus presenting some horribly difficult questions for those aboard. The ’50s is when sci fi got real. No happy endings or heroes, just dark extrapolations of society and bleak hypotheticals. Yum. My kind of thinking. Stowaway embraces the spirit of this era and alters the formula just a bit to create one of the more inventive science fiction films of recent years.
Stowaway is unmistakably ‘hard’ sci fi, sharing more in common with The Martian, Sunshine or Approaching the Unknown than the film it bears the most resemblance to, which is the rather silly Gravity. The three-person crew of Zoe (Anna Kendrick), Marina (Toni Collette) and David (Daniel Dae Kim) are on a two-year mission to Mars. Not long into the journey, an unconscious member of the ground crew Michael (Shamier Anderson) is discovered behind a panel. Naturally, it is too late to turn around and a decision is made to continue the journey as a quartet. Not long into the trip, things start to go wrong. Time for some cold equations.
As someone who has watched over 300 science fiction films, it is deeply refreshing to watch how practically each member behaves. From Michael’s petrified first few moments awake to David’s kind but realistic professionalism, all four characters display the exact kind of behaviour you would expect someone in that position to make. Even the more emotional Zoe never strays into the realm of irrationality – a trait regularly, disappointingly and inexplicably seen in female characters in the genre. If Captain Kirk’s reckless, rude and extremely lucky methods of spacefaring poison your enjoyment of Star Trek, then Stowaway is the recommended antidote. For joyless twats like me that find it difficult to immerse themselves in worlds in which character actions are implausible or anachronistic, Stowaway offers a more considered approach to an impossible situation. The triumph of the human spirit doesn’t work here. Just some really fucking hard decisions.
Stowaway also displays a relatively intelligent perspective on artificial gravity (centrifugal force), with the kind of rotationally-generated ‘gravity’ also seen in Interstellar, The Martian and The Expanse (TV), as well as in my favourite book series The Culture. The film creates its central action set piece around this idea, forcing members of the crew in an arduous trip up and along the tether between two halves of the rotating space craft. It’s both interesting and innovative, eventually leaving you feeling exhausted on their behalf. Mostly though, Stowaway is more likely to stimulate your neurons than your sweat glands. It has two or three compelling ideas that it executes well, and effectively manages to avoid outstaying its welcome on any of them. Stowaway is unlikely to appeal to everyone, possibly for the reasons that make it so captivating for the rest of us.