Saturday, July 24, 2021

Naturalism in Space: Stowaway

Shamier Anderson, Anna Kendrick, Daniel Dae Kim, and Toni Collette in Stowaway (2021).

“To Build a Fire,” Jack London’s most anthologized short story, follows a guy in the Yukon trying furiously to build a fire ahead of an oncoming blizzard. Each time he tries, something goes wrong. On the surface, the plot of Stowaway, written by director Joe Penna and Ryan Morrison, seems similar. Plotwise, all you really need to know is that it’s set on an unstoppable resource-limited spaceship, and it’s called StowawayOver the nearly two-hour running time, only one thing goes right, and it’s not enough.

Critics have compared it to the infamous Trolley Problem of moral philosophy, which asks whether it’s better to save more lives if it means killing fewer on purpose. But the film does what such a thought experiment can’t: it fleshes out the lives at stake. The most direct way it does this is by giving them names and getting great actors to portray them. Anna Kendrick plays medical doctor Zoe, who’s upbeat and optimistic to a fault. Kendrick has rarely if ever taken on the role of an unlikable character or even of someone significantly dissimilar to her energetic and sometimes awkward celebrity persona. Zoe starts off in the same vein, but when it becomes clear that these traits alone won’t keep everyone alive, she reveals a new side of herself: nobility. Toni Collette plays mission commander Marina, a slightly underwritten role. Most of her interiority is brilliantly conveyed through physical acting, with her lines limited mostly to functional information and command decisions. But one key line spoken to mission control confirms that Marina is not actually a utility monster, one who remorselessly calculates whom to sacrifice for whom. She, too, has a heart. Daniel Dae Kim plays biologist David, mild-mannered and pointedly weaker physically but, as one character calls him, “driven.” His characterization is the most lacking, as we only get factoids about his life and interests, and many of those factoids happen to play to stereotypes of the overachieving Asian. The sole exception is his passion for jazz, which comes through clearly when he explains it to a befuddled listener. It’s a much better explanation than that of Ryan Gosling’s ostensible aficionado in La La Land (2016). Then there’s Michael, the titular stowaway, played by Shamier Anderson, whom critics keep calling a “relative newcomer” even though IMDb lists 48 credits to his name. Anderson delivers a finely tuned performance as the untrained engineering master’s student who wakes up injured on a spaceship mid-flight to Mars, balancing panic, guilt, earnestness, and dread. As the least experienced/educated crew member, Michael serves as audience surrogate, even if the film slightly favors Zoe for protagonist.

We can never make out what mission control is saying, so for all intents and purposes, these four make up our dramatis personae. If you think about their respective backstories long enough, you can figure out who will live and who won’t. This fact, and the ample foreshadowing of every twist and turn, suggests that the plot is just the skeleton on which the film hangs its real concerns. There’s the moral calculus, of course. Who should die – the useless stowaway, the blind optimist, the scientist whose research and raison d’ĂȘtre for going to Mars has been sacrificed, or the commander who’s on her last mission? And how should they die, like Hamlet (by his own hand) or Caesar (killed by everyone else)? There’s also a social justice component to the conundrum. Michael is not only the sole Black guy; he’s also been through a lot in life and is lucky to be alive. How much more should that count than David’s being Asian and having a wife and kids; Zoe’s saving lives for a living; or the fact that Marina is the leader whom mission control deems indispensable over her own protests?

These heady considerations are grounded in the film’s fluent visual language, as shot by Klemens Becker. Though it lacks the spectacle of space films such as Ad Astra (2019)Stowaway compensates with sinuous long takes that show off the cramped set designed by Marco Bittner Rosser. When a sense of agitation is needed, the set limits expression by movement, so instead we get the film’s only hand-held shot. And the film’s final shot, essentially of Moses gazing on the Promised Land, is one for the ages. In a setting where location, weather, and natural light can’t serve as crutches, every color, camera angle, and lighting decision should tell part of the story. Penna and Becker pull this off beautifully. It’s gratifying to see a film that makes a habit of conveying key information wordlessly.

If there’s anything to complain about (aside from the usual fudging on plot point plausibility), it’s the score, orchestrated by five different people. The unsettling and weird industrial strings are by now de rigeur for space films in which things go wrong, and most of the time the unimaginative score feels like it’s there simply because every film needs one. In truth, pure silence, muting even the background machine whirring and ventilation sounds, would have hit harder – the sound of the Yukon snow snuffing out a fire.

CJ Sheu has a PhD in contemporary American fiction from National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.  

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