No one could have predicted this, least of all the people who made it, but Stowaway, a new science-fiction survival drama on Netflix, is perhaps the most thematically relevant and emotionally resonant film that Indians will watch this year.
It’s about a three-person crew, whose two-year mission to Mars is interrupted when they discover a stowaway in the hold. His name is Michael, and he has no idea how he got there. But his presence presents a problem – there isn’t enough oxygen onboard for four people.
Watch the Stowaway trailer here
The crew, led by a curt veteran astronaut played by Toni Collette, is faced with a moral quandary. Should they dispose of Michael, thereby ensuring that the mission proceeds as per plan and they remain unharmed, or should they risk retrieving the spare oxygen that lies, unattended and unaccounted for, a 20-minute spacewalk away on the other side of the station?
Anna Kendrick plays a doctor named Zoe, the moral centre of the crew. She insists that they do everything in their power to save Michael, with whom she has developed a fast bond. But there’s a sense that even if she hadn’t, she’d have advocated for his survival. David, a biologist played by Daniel Dae Kim, on the other hand, believes that wasting even another day trying to retrieve the oxygen is putting the rest of them, and the mission, in jeopardy.
After a series of deliberations, humanity prevails, and the crew decides to stage the daring retrieval attempt. In a thrilling 30 minute third act, wonderfully paced and excitingly staged, we accompany David and Zoe as they make the 450-metre journey to the other side of the space station, while Michael and the commander stay behind.
Director Joe Penna, who broke onto the Hollywood scene after a hugely successful career as a YouTuber, isn’t merely trying to make a spectacle. He is more concerned with how these characters react to the psychological turmoil they find themselves in. He highlights their entrapment by ramping up the claustrophobia in the first couple of acts, and then, makes grand statements about the insignificance of humanity by framing sweeping vistas of space in that final set piece.
Stowaway isn’t the sort of mainstream entertainment that Ridley Scott’s The Martian was, but it isn’t meant to be. It’s more like a classic episode of Star Trek; self-contained, thematically ambitious, and deeply humanistic. It is also reminiscent of Explorers on the Moon, the first Tintin album to truly contemplate mortality.
But it is that final mission that adds an unexpected emotional heft to the film. What would, in virtually any other time in history, have been nothing more than a solid action set piece, has been transformed by the ongoing pandemic into a something infinitely more meaningful. Zoe and David’s independent quest to find oxygen mirrors the mass mobilisation of common men and women that we are witnessing right now, all around us, while the representatives chosen to lead fail both the crew, and our country.
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Mission control in the film is never seen. Nor is it heard. We are allowed to listen only to one side of the conversation, heightening the sensation that the crew of the Hyperion spacecraft is, as the Prime Minister would say, ‘atmanirbhar’. But they face their problems head on, with kindness, not hate; with empathy, not suspicion; with hope, not fear. And that is why Stowaway is the movie of the moment.
Director – Joe Penna
Cast – Anna Kendrick, Toni Collette, Daniel Dae Kim, Shamier Anderson
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The author tweets @RohanNaahar