This review contains spoilers for the film “Stowaway.”
I don’t know if “Stowaway” was meant to be an allegory for coronavirus, but intentionally or otherwise, the film offers powerful insights into the strange times we find ourselves living in.
The premise is simple: Commander Barnett (Toni Collette), Dr. Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) and researcher David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim) are early in their journey on a two-year mission to Mars when they discover that an engineer named Michael (Shamier Anderson) has “stowed away.” We learn that Michael did so unintentionally and is not to blame for his critical mistake. The ship does not have enough resources to sustain four people, and the crew find themselves in the midst of a real-life trolley problem. They contemplate whether some should die to save the others, or whether the trolley can be thrown off the tracks altogether.
There’s a plethora of films for comparison in what I’d call the “realistic space” genre. Broadly, there are philosophical space films (“2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Interstellar”) and problem-solving space films (“Apollo 13”). Some are outlandish (“Gravity”), some are more grounded in reality (“The Martian”). Nearly all are highly dramatic and intense. “Stowaway” is different - it is both philosophical and centered around problem solving, but it’s quiet. And I don’t mean quiet in the way space is quiet (“Gravity” makes the silence of space almost gimmicky). Rather, “Stowaway” is incredibly understated. There are few emotional outbursts, and intense music only makes an appearance at the very end. Grave and painful decisions are made with stoicism. It feels like the “Dunkirk” of space films.
Many critics complained about this quietness and felt the pacing of “Stowaway” was far too slow, but I find beauty in the film’s subtlety. In the midst of a deep existential crisis, the characters undergo immense tragedy and personal sacrifice, and they do so in silence. There’s a problem to be solved, but we come to realize that the problem isn’t totally solvable - or only solvable at great cost. We hope for the Hollywood solution, we hope that everyone will make it or only one character will have to suffer to save the others. Sadly, the reality is that life rarely grants us such tidy endings.
There are further coronavirus comparisons. There’s the initial matter of questioning whether Michael has insidious intentions and purposefully stowed away, or wondering whether his passage is a giant plot hole; how could an entire person fit in a compartment on a spacecraft unnoticed, especially by accident? Then we remember what this last year has taught us: humans are far more fallible and prone to error than we think, even the smartest among us make mistakes, and not everything is a conspiracy theory. Some tragedies just happen without bad intent from anyone, and regulatory systems designed to combat disaster can fail. We are left to clean up the unimaginable damage.
The comparisons continue. The crew is effectively in a two-year quarantine, separated from their loved ones - some by choice, some against their will. Suddenly the characters are thrust into a life or death situation - who should be saved? The most useful?
We are left to question the substance of what makes life meaningful in the first place. One pauses to think of our front-line care workers, many of whom have died to save the elderly and vulnerable, and the callous refrains we have heard about how our societal sacrifice of lockdown “wasn’t worth it.”
One has to wonder what the therapy sessions of the survivors would sound like - perhaps they wouldn’t sound so different from our own. Dr Kim, who gave years of his life to his research and his career, had to watch his labor of love go down the drain in a matter of days. Michael has outlived his father - his survival guilt must be serious. Commander Barnett, a maternal figure who feels responsible for her crew, found herself helpless and unable to prevent disaster.
And what about the ending? So many critics had questions. In a way, I’m glad there were few answers, because often, that’s how grief and trauma is. There’s no tidy ending; you have to come to terms with what has happened to you and make your own closure.
“Stowaway” is a poignant film, and a somber reflection of our times. We are in the midst of the greatest collective trauma of our generation. People all around us are dying, sacrifices are being made, tragedy abounds. But unlike our grandparents or great-grandparents who survived tumultuous, war-torn landscapes, we are surviving in relatively quiet isolation, and that makes it all the stranger.
Photos courtesy of Netflix
The film’s premise is simple: Commander Barnett (Toni Collette), Dr. Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) and researcher David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim) are on a mission to Mars when they discover that an engineer has “stowed away.”