Stowaway ★★★

The warmth of the actors makes "Stowaway" surprisingly tender, considering the premise that is blatantly absurd. If you allow yourself to think for one moment of the paradoxes, contradictions and logical difficulties involved, you will be lost. The movie supports no objective thought. Until the third act, it takes its time, establishing the goals and routines of a mission to Mars, the basic personalities of the ship's crew, and one significant and unexpected hurdle to the potential success of the mission. Director Joe Penna and Ryan Morrison's screenplay follows through on those expectations, but more importantly, it throws a significantly different element into the mix. That element seems as if it would against the philosophy of survival in space but, because of the circumstances, doesn't.

The struggle for resources involves a horrific moral calculus. The movie opens with the launch of a rocket headed for Mars (the year is never stated, but there's a colony in place). We watch the takeoff, shot entirely from within the cockpit and looking only at the faces of these characters as they react. Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) is the ship's doctor, who's initially startled but breaks out with a big smile as she soars into the sky. David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim) has been tasked with trying to start plant growth on Mars. The ship's commander, Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), has been on two previous space missions, with this one serving as a her final voyage.

After connecting with a device that will spin the ship and create artificial gravity, the three settle into their roles and routines. Shortly into the trip, the ship's carbon dioxide scrubber fails, and within a panel in the ceiling, Marina discovers a man trapped inside - Michael Adams (Shmier Anderson), an engineer whose job should have been finished before takeoff. He's unconscious at the time, but when he awakens, it's with the terror of realizing he's stuck in this ship for two years, with his younger sister back on Earth.

That in itself wouldn't cause a crisis, but his presence damaged that carbon dioxide scrubber. The ship has enough fuel to get to Mars, but not enough air. The agency behind this fraught mission, Hyperion, probably isn't a government-backed organization. The ship these characters are traveling in was originally designed for two people. To accommodate a third person, engineers redesigned by subtracting protective layers from the ship's outer hull while packing only the most necessary of supplies. The movie never quite adequately explains how some random engineer wound up accidentally passed out during prelaunch inside a ceiling panel on a highly sensitive mission, but Penna gracefully dances around such challenges.

Though Michael didn't envision himself here, now that he is, he volunteers to help in any way possible. He helps David with his experiments. Zoe starts talking to him about his life, his tragic past, and his dreams of becoming an astronaut. It's simple stuff, but that's all we need to understand the fundamental qualities of these characters. His charitable, sincere nature makes the situation's unavoidable truth difficult to face. The issue is one of basic, awful math: Three can survive, so mission control suggests the crew simply subtracts one member of the crew. Since the original three are vital to the ship's arrival on Mars and return home, there's a very specific one who needs to be subtracted. Presumably, the one is Michael.

It's fascinating to watch this film within the context of so many stories about adventures in space travel. There's no hidden villain, trying to use this mission for some ulterior motive. There are no aliens. Until the climax, there's no real threat from the nature of space itself - no meteors or asteroids or anything that could cause catastrophic failure to the ship. "Stowaway" is a very small-scale movie. A little too small-scale, if you ask me. It starts slow, and really stays on that level until the third act, which is where we start to get involved. That said, there still isn't much tension to be had watching Anna Kendrick check on the pressure gauge of the oxygen tank, which is why it feels unnecessary to have dramatic music telling us otherwise.

This dilemma gets handled with a gratifying degree of verisimilitude. The launch sequence at the beginning involves enough credible-sounding jargon to leave most of us convinced; a dozen or so consultants get cited in the closing credits, and it's clear that Penna and Morrison utilized them to fashion as realistic a depiction of manned space travel as they could, given their presumably modest budget. Rather than pretend that human beings could reach Mars in one go, the film depicts how it might actually work, which involves the initial rocket docking with a segmented craft that then rotates its way to the fourth planet, tumbling end over end. That layout figures heavily into the movie's climax, which sees two crew members embark upon a truly dangerous effort to keep all four of them alive for the duration.

This has been, I realize, a nutty review. I am recommending a movie that I do not seem to like very much. But part of the pleasure of moviegoing is pure spectacle - of just sitting there and looking at great stuff and knowing it looks terrific. Penna has simply crafted a human drama, which just happens to take place on a spaceship, dealing with this quandary not only as a moral question, but also as one that takes a significant toll on each of these characters in distinct ways. The film becomes more than a tale of adversity under a seemingly impossible situation. It becomes a study of whether or not a person is willing to give up their humanity in order to survive.

Gavin liked this review