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Stowaway (Joe Penna, 2021)


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I'm dispirited by the widespread negative response (might even call it outright dismissal) to this film, which is a relatively modest, small-scale Netflix movie about three astronauts headed to Mars who discover an authorized fourth passenger on their ship and must face the classic moral dilemma about how to value one person's life versus the lives of several (or many) other people. Even though the screenplay is not an adaptation of an existing source, the parallel is a 1954 sci-fi short story, titled The Cold Equations, with essentially the same situation but with the resources changed (a shortage of air, instead of fuel). I like the film because of its small scale (it almost feels like a stage play), the subtle complexities of its central moral problem, and, perhaps most of all, a final act that surprised me and really moved me. Honestly, it's difficult for me to watch the ending without tearing up. A lot.

In order to talk about the critical response, I'll have to include spoilers, so if you prefer to avoid them, I recommend not reading further until you've seen the film. For what it's worth, personally I usually don't care about spoilers, the exception being a suspense thriller or a whodunit/murder mystery. Stowaway is neither of these and has no major plot twists, but the experience of watching can still be undermined by knowing how everything turns out.

After watching the film, I read a good number of professional reviews online, including viewer comments for any review that had a comments thread. Then I went over to YouTube to watch a few video reviews (most of them were unreflective) and scroll through viewers' comments there too (mistake!). The most common objection is about plot mechanics and logic: specifically, critics and viewers angered that the film never explains how and why the stowaway got onto the ship in the first place. If it was an accident, it seems impossible. If it was intentional, then the film should just say so. All of this dispirited me because, for one, so often in film criticism a film seems to survive or die based solely on its plot mechanics, when in reality there's much more to any given film than that. If Stowaway had been the kind of science-fiction short story you might find in an anthology, or had it actually been a stage play, would people have the same objections? Moreover, when I gave careful thought to the film's moral problem, and after watching the film twice, I realized that how stowaway got onto the ship is immaterial. The story isn't about how he made it there. It's about what to do when a group of people realize that survival requires either a sacrifice by someone or the commission of a necessary evil by the group. How he got there becomes irrelevant.

But also there's this: none of the reviews or comments I read mentioned a line of dialogue in which the stowaway, talking out loud to his sister, who is back on earth, says that "this" (his being on the ship) might be the best thing for them -- a suggestion that he intended all along to be a stowaway. I admire the fact that Stowaway remains ambiguous about his intentions and the possibly that it was all an accident. It's the ambiguity that heightens the moral tension. If his presence is entirely accidental, then can the crew really blame him for creating a problem that otherwise would not have been created? Could they ever justify killing him to save themselves, if it ever came to that? But if he wanted to be there? How might this reality alter the moral problem?

And then there's this -- and this is *really* a spoiler, so ye hath been warned: at least one critic opined that "we" feel no emotional investment in the film. Really? Zoe (the doctor, played by Anna Kendrick) says, once in conversation and once in voice-over, that she joined the Mars mission because she wanted to find meaning in her life, and she ends up finding meaning by giving up her life to save other people. That's what moved me; that's what made me feel very emotionally invested by the film's end. And it's not her decision only that moved me: it's how her decision physically/visually plays out in the final scene of the film. All that swirling radiation; the long climb in the vacuum of space, using the tethers; her labored breaths; her sitting on the top of the ship and staring at Mars in the distance.

I'm not trying to suggest that there aren't multiple legitimate ways to interpret a film; and I definitely acknowledge that one critic might like or hate a film while I feel the opposite. But there's also what's there on the screen and in the screenplay, and we have to give them adequate reflection. Believe or not, there are a few reviews out there that include no mention at all of the moral dilemma that's at the heart of the film.

Edited by Michael S
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