REVIEW: ‘Stowaway ‘ is a lifeless anomaly devoid of charm and complexity

Boyce Rucker, Contributing Writer

In the case of many sci-fi films, viewers can expect themes that lean into existentialism, the state of humanity or preventing catastrophe. Netflix’s latest original sci-fi thriller directed by Joe Penna, “Stowaway,” released on April 22, tells a smaller story with personal stakes and a grounded setting. Despite the space setting, the film falls in line with the smaller scale films Netflix has released in recent months (i.e. “Malcolm and Marie,” “Concrete Cowboy”). While the small scale of “Stowaway” easily offers a chance at more originality and a stronger focus on characterization, the film’s ideas ultimately feel uninteresting and shallow.

“Stowaway” follows a space team that consists of medical researcher Zoe (Anna Kendrick),  ship captain Marina (Toni Collette) and biologist David (Daniel Dae Kim) as they embark on a two-year space mission to Mars. Sharing good camaraderie with one another, the team collaborates and functions well enough to have a well-thought plan and strategic use of resources that will ensure their survival throughout the mission. However, their mission is placed in jeopardy due to the discovery of a stowaway onboard named Michael (Shamier Anderson). Consequently, as their resources cannot be utilized for more than the three intended, the group is faced with the moral dilemma of having to find a solution that could either save or doom them all, or sacrifice one person to save the others.      

Anna Kendrick in “Stowaway” (2021). (Joe Penna/ RainMaker Films)

While the film’s moral conflict sounds promising and worth exploring, it never really feels like it is reaching its full potential. What makes this aspect so lacking is that there never appears to be much depth to the characters. The self-contained nature of the narrative doesn’t allow much time for the audience to form deep connections with the characters, thus it makes it more difficult to care about which one will be sacrificed. This is especially evident as the film tries to force connections through character expositions that could easily be overlooked and lack emotional resonance. Although the film sets up a premise that seems compelling on the surface level, it goes nowhere and offers no contemplative themes or messages, leaving viewers unsatisfied by the time the credits roll.

On the other hand, the film does well in establishing a more grounded tone that leans towards thriller or drama with its moral themes rather than science fiction with fantastical elements. The film boasts impressive instances of science jargon, which is a refreshing departure from the simplified nature of science dialogue in recent mainstream sci-fi films. The film’s deep scientific roots can be attributed to the advice that Penna received when consulting with YouTuber and physicist Scott Manley.

The film can be commended for its visuals and production design of the ship’s interior. The ship is slightly reminiscent of the ship that’s featured in Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” but it feels much more like an actual base of operations and living quarters rather than a playground for cheap thrills. As the film’s sole location, the ship lends itself to the cabin fever feeling that’s present throughout the film, even though it is not well executed due to a lack of atmosphere and the missed opportunity of delving into the characters’ psychologies more. 

Shamier Anderson in “Stowaway” (2021). (Joe Penna/ RainMaker Films)

The film’s stars barely feel significant at all, given that the writing for the characters is so short-handed. While Kendrick acts as the focal character and provides a likability to Zoe, she never gets the chance to demonstrate range or show signs of character development. As a result, the audience doesn’t really have a reason to care much about her character. 

Both Colette’s and Kim’s talents are also wasted as their characters lean too far into the archetypes of space crew characters that are present in other sci-fi works. They fail to be memorable and don’t have any character-defining moments that make them stand out.  

Daniel Dae Kim in “Stowaway” (2021). (Joe Penna/ RainMaker Films)

Despite being the titular character, Anderson’s performance as Michael is hindered by both poor writing and the lack of screen presence that fails to make his character stand out, aside from annoying plot holes and forced exposition. With such a small cast and poor characterization, it is difficult to find ways to empathize with the characters or care for their overall being. It is especially disappointing when even an impressionable cast cannot salvage the script’s lack of polish.     

With a premise that could have easily lent itself to be an engaging thriller, “Stowaway” fails in delivering a cohesive storyline that makes great use of its characters. The film sets itself up well in the opening scenes but falls apart after the first act due to an assortment of plot holes, much-needed character development and no overall message or sense of satisfaction for its audience. Like space itself, the film is lifeless and difficult to enjoy.