Review of Stowaway (2021)

Moving picture, 116 minutes

Seen in 2021.

A manned two-year mission to Mars, one of many in the early stages of a long-term project, runs into trouble.

The obvious comparison is The Midnight Sky (2020). Stowaway achieves roughly the same mood, but is scientifically literate, which adds a great deal to the experience. The conclusion and sentiment are ultimately similar to “The Cold Equations” (1943), but with sensuous elaborations appropriate to film.

It’s not perfect. Most superficially, the printer used to make the arm brace is a regular MakerBot, which doesn’t make sense. As in Life (2017), there are bigger goofs: Helmet visors up during launch, no cables for the space walk, objects moving directly away from the cycler as if under gravity etc. Much more importantly, it is never explained how Michael got shut in with the CDRA. Like the legend of the riveter who had supposedly been lost inside the double hull of the SS Great Eastern, Michael being there isn’t plausible as an accident, but it also isn’t plausible as a deliberate action to get to Mars. Although he is briefly hopeful about becoming useful and a hero of sorts, Michael clearly knows his life would not be better on Mars than it was on Earth, and there is no sign that he is crazy or wanted to hide from someone other than the crew. Many coincidences are then needed to produce ultimate disaster: Marina breaking her arm, the hull being breached, a short circuit damaging the CDRA beyond repair, no backup CDRA, and finally the ill-timed CME, inexplicably with poetic VFX and no advance warning. This density of misfortune implies, rather back-handedly, that although the specs were strained for a crew of three as noted in the script, the engineers who built the ship were still competent, which is a good spin on an otherwise familiar scenario like that of “Mono no Aware” (2012/2013). I’m not sure about the algae; growing them in plastic bags makes more sense here than it does in Aniara (2018), but I didn’t understand why David couldn’t mitigate the risks further.

The most refreshing thing about Stowaway is its basis in good ideas, including that it never stoops to violence for drama. There is enough drama, but most of the enjoyment comes from the clever thought experiment, a forced small-scale FMEA of the Mars Cycler concept, with good set design and decent VFX. That’s a big step up from the earliest space disaster fiction like Rocketship X-M (1950), but apparently, not many appreciate it. As of this writing in June 2021, Stowaway and The Midnight Sky have identical IMDb ratings of 5.6, despite the strong contrast in their fundamental attitudes to knowledge.

moving picture fiction