Stowaway ★★★

"I'm not giving up on you."

Director Joe Penna returns after his fantastic debut Arctic for a very different film that also features a survival theme and moral dilemma but this time in a science-fiction setting, with the new Netflix entry Stowaway. Another mid-budget sci-fi for the streaming service is certainly far better than George Clooney's The Midnight Sky, but pacing issues and a too-long runtime hold it back from greatness.

A two-year mission to Mars has launched with captain Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim), and medical researcher Dr. Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick). They tether to a main ship already in space to maintain artificial gravity, but soon after exploring their small vessel and unloading supplies -- including David's and Zoe's priceless research equipment -- the crew makes a startling and potentially mission-altering discovery: stuck up inside a mechanical duct is a man named Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson), launch plan engineer who is injured from his ordeal. His breach also damages the machine that regulates carbon dioxide on the ship. Determined to maintain the mission protocol, Commander Barnett has to make a choice: divert from the plan to create enough oxygen using David's biology experiments, or an untested theory to recover canisters from the ship.

The namesake stowaway comes quickly so the story has plenty of time to consider how to handle this incredible circumstance. Any space mission is so finely planned to intricate detail, so after a brief honeymoon period where the trio is a little excited to have a new member -- who is likeable and hard-working -- they soon realize that his very existence jeopardizes everything for which they have trained. Stowaway then presents an interesting moral dilemma in the subgenre of space disaster movies, utterly implausible as it is, of how to handle such an unthinkable event as an extra person on board.

Losing even one crew member of the original three would be disastrous, as of course each comes with certain skills which complement one another. So Penna and co-writer Ryan Morrison take their time -- maybe a little too much time -- heightening the drama of this incredible dilemma. The biologist who spent his professional life preparing for this research must abandon everything because of one man's screw-up. Smartly, the script doesn't shy away from each character's emotional struggle, even if it probably doesn't do so efficiently.

There is… how do I say this?... a very tricky and potentially regrettable decision to have the stowaway played by a Black actor, soon seen as a burden and seriously debated by the crew if they should literally kill him to save themselves. I'm not intelligent enough to discuss the ethical problems of this in depth, but I'm just putting it out there: the one Black guy is cast as part of the Trolley Problem, and it's less than ideal.

But anyway, it's an effective story as emotions are mined and solutions are drafted, maybe with an underwhelming finale but relatively satisfying. With only four actors, and purposefully withholding any other voices from mission control on Earth, Stowaway keeps its claustrophobic atmosphere obvious as we are holed up with the crew as well. It's pretty good.

Friend who wrote a better review than me: Gavin Petty.

Added to The Narrative Films of 2021, ranked.

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