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Stowaway review: Sound design and visuals save a bare bones film

Stowaway review: Sound design and visuals save a bare bones film image
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Stowaway, the latest Netflix movie to send viewers into space, is structured much like a short story.

Our cast of characters–Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick), David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim), and Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson)–start off as a crew of three that unexpectedly becomes four putting their lives and their mission to Mars in jeopardy.

However, not much happens. Though Stowaway has been labeled a sci-fi thriller, it leans more heavily into introspective drama which is supported by the close camera work. Tension is often built by tight angles highlighted by the claustrophobic quarters of the MTS-42.

This is not to say that the performances given by this quartet of actors aren’t good. They all have a rapport and chemistry that translates well onscreen with Collette maintaining the polite distance often seen in commanders or leaders of a group of people they’re responsible for.

Is Stowaway a good movie?

I’m simply saying the stars of Stowaway happen to be the director Joe Penna, the cinematographer Klemens Becker, and the sound department.

The film begins with a nerve-wracking launch into space. We enter on a black screen as the Hyperion mission command checks in with the crew in preparation for lift-off. The scene sets the groundwork reminding the audience that the MTS-42 trio are essentially in a metal box being catapulted into space.

The wonder that often comes with the concept of space travel is seen in Kendrick’s Zoe, the fear that comes with its reality is shown through Kim’s David. Collette’s Barnett is neutral. Her character’s job is to see them into space safely. There’s no margin for error, so she has to be in total control even when she’s worried.

As this is happening, the three are surrounded by sound from the thrusters, the air pockets breaking through as they pick up speed and the shaking of the spacecraft as its bombarded by the force of their planetary exit.

It’s jarring and unsettling to watch knowing that anything can go wrong despite being aware that it’s only been minutes into the film and the real scare won’t be coming until later.

After this launch, however, Stowaway slows down and it’s all character work. We get to know the core facets of these individuals, though it’s done in broad strokes rather than with any real depth.

Zoe is a doctor who applied to the Hyperion program on a lark thinking it’d be funny if she got rejected. But when she was accepted, she decided to use the opportunity to give meaning and purpose to her life.

David has spent years on his algae research directed toward making life sustainable on Mars so the red planet can become a permanent home for humans. Despite the time they’ll be parted, David’s wife supports him in this endeavor.

Barnett is on her third and last mission for Hyperion, and she’s set to retire after this two-year journey to the colony and back.

Michael’s appearance throws everything out of whack, though he didn’t purposefully stowaway on the ship. As an engineer for Hyperion, he’d been working on the firing pins before getting trapped, resulting in a nasty cut in his side and the devastating realization that he’d be parted from his sister, Ava, who’s a minor.

His addition to the crew also puts everyone’s lives in jeopardy as the MTS-42 loses its carbon dioxide scrubber forcing the crew to make difficult decisions.

For much of Stowaway‘s plot, the audience is asked to struggle over this dilemma with this quartet.

Should Michael have to die to save everyone else? Is it right to ask him to do that? Do the others deserve to live more than him because they were actually meant to be on the ship? Have all their options been exhausted? Given their window for survival, should they wait until they’re given no choice? Who is right and who is wrong in this scenario? What will be the psychological cost?

They’re all valid, interesting questions, but they’re difficult to sustain a film on. The stakes get higher as things become direr, of course, but it’s not until the crew actively starts to do something about their situation that the film feels like it’s going anywhere other than walking in desperate circles.

However, I should note, Anderson is particularly compelling as Michael in these moments. Throughout the film, he’s engaging and charming but the real meat of what’s happening centers on the fate of his character. There’s guilt, a desire not to be a burden, and a vulnerability that he plays so beautifully as he wrestles with the choices the crew is making and the choices available to him.

Still, as previously stated, the film doesn’t really kick back into gear until David and Zoe go on a mission to buy the MTS-42 crew more time and save Michael. It’s here that the science fiction portion of the film gets to flex as the actors are kitted out in full astronaut gear.

With the ship rotating, it’s hard to find equilibrium. The film puts the audience on the same teetering edge as the crew with these visuals. Space is beautiful and vast and terrifying in this last act of Stowaway.

Most of the sound comes from Zoe and David’s breathing, the clank of their metal clamps as they climb the ship’s thread, and their communications back and forth between each other and Barnett.

Paired with how open and pitch dark–with exception to the presence of stars and the stark white and grey of their ship–space is depicted, it becomes very apparent that any wrong move could send one or both of these characters out and away from their craft with no way to return.

By the time Stowaway reaches its fateful end, it’s emotionally draining and without a conclusion that stabilizes the viewer. Though that seems to be the point. The choices made in the film aren’t supposed to feel right or fair. Nor did the movie seem concerned with the actual mission to Mars but rather what happens when tough decisions have to made and no one else can make them.

Collette’s performance embodies this idea rather well as she must listen to mission command, swallow directives that make her sick, contend with her injured arm which takes her out of the running to take part in the rescue mission, and live with the fact that out of everyone she’s the only one who can’t sacrifice herself because the others can’t fly or land this ship.

Even knowing that, however, Stowaway‘s thin plot could have brought the story under if the direction weren’t so well done, the cinematography breathtaking, and the sound buffering, buffering, and disappearing which helps support the tension needed to sustain the intensity in the film.

Stowaway is streaming now on Netflix.
Next: 50 best Netflix movies to watch right now
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