It makes sense that there is an abundance of films set in the near or far depths of space.
It is, after all, one of the most hostile environments known to humanity, a place inimical to life where, if peril threatens, there are little to no options for rescue or even remedial assistance of any kind.
It is thus therefore the perfect setting for a tension-filled thriller and the Joe Penna-directed (he co-wrote the screenplay with Ryan Morrison) film Stowaway makes the absolute most of it, sending you on a journey that tears your soul in two and leaves your heart near-constantly in your mouth.
What is inordinately clever about the film is that manages to ratchet up the stakes without resorting to even a hint of melodrama or falsified humanity.
Quietly and yet with deliberate, affecting intent, Stowaway builds up a scenario in which three astronauts heading to Mars to perform experiments and to take supplies to a nascent colony there – ship’s commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), medical researcher, Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) and biologist, David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim), all with compelling and profoundly moving stories of their own – discover that their craft is home to one other unexpected person.
The stowaway of the title is injured launch support engineer Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson) who has been shoved into a roof compartment of the spacecraft (and who’s connection to Earth is heartbreakingly real and desperately beautiful) – quite why is never fully explained but ultimately the how and why is less important than the fact that it happened – and who is nursed back to health by a crew who are devoted to each other and to the welfare of the interloper, no matter his providence.
While their benevolence is admirable, it is sadly ultimately futile with Adams’ presence resulting in damaged to a carbon dioxide scrubbing unit, meaning that a damaged ship designed to supply enough oxygen for three people for two years now must stretch to four people which simply can’t be done.
Bright minds back at Hyperion, the private company that runs the Mars program, fail to come up with any workable ideas as does veteran commander Burnett, meaning that the crew is faced with an impossible choice – send Michael out the airlock to die or die themselves.
It’s at this point that less nuanced and well-made films would press the survivalist melodrama button, emotionally manipulating the audience with do-or-die scenarios accompanied by yelling, Lord of the Flies’ breakdowns in social cohesion, and a general sense of sliding towards an unsolvable, cataclysmic end.
But Stowaway is thankfully not these films, and while the stakes are genuinely high and there is doubting the morally troubling nature of the soul-searing dilemma, the movie never goes for the easy options.
For a start, each of the three original astronauts largely remains cohesively bonded to each other at the end as they were at the beginning.
There is tension, of course, and temporary breakdowns in communication and friendships (how could there not be under that kind of pressure?) but it is never fatal and we are never treated to the narratively lazy device of people falling out with each other to an irreparable degree and resorting to an every person for themselves situation.
Whatever the challenges are, and they are substantial and apparently unsolvable, or it seems at first, these three people remain, for the most part, decent, caring, and thoughtful human beings who have no choice but to grapple with a dilemma that would test even the strongest and morally certain of people.
So points right away to Stowaway for respecting the fact that not becomes a narcisstic arsehole at the first sign of a life-imperilling dire circumstances.
But this poignantly moving and endlessly thoughtful film goes one better, with the crew not only taking Michael into the midst and putting him to work as if he had every right to be there but to fighting every step of the way to keep him alive.
They could, of course, have just got rid of him the first chance they got but they don’t and much of Stowaway‘s emotionally rich impact comes from the fact that the innate humanity of the situation is never once ignored or minimised.
In contrast to the natural response to this kind of premise which is ratchet up the pressure over and over and over again until the music is blaring in alarmist fashion in a frantically over the top bid to play up the epic nature of this most ethically confronting of conundrums, Stowaway recognises that the true drama, the actual emotional resonance of the piece is to be found in the small, quiet moments wherein lies, rather counter-intuitively, the greatest import.
It’s in the hushed conversation between David and Zoe, or the agonisingly resigned sharing by Commander Burnett that there is no readily apparent to replaced the totalled CO2 scrubbing unit and that they will all suffocate months before reaching Mars, that some of the greatest, most affecting scenes of drama take place.
These are the actions of people who know they are almost certainly doomed, who refuse to give up despite the challenges confronting them (though there are naturally moments of dissension) and who are clinging to a desperate hope that says there must be a solution at hand even if it can’t be seen then and there.
It is the innate decency and humanity of the characters that forms the beating heart of Stowaway, a film that sustains a blisteringly intense and emotionally impacting sense of will they-won’t they-how can they over 116 perfectly-judged minutes, all of which are used to maximum effect and which explore in ways that will seize your heart and soul ever so quietly but devastatingly effectively what it means to truly give yourself up for your fellow human being and if there is any way to have your survival cake and eat it too or if life is such that it is either this OR that with no negotiation to be had.