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'Stowaway' review: Engaging, smart sci-fi drama

Toni Collette stars in "Stowaway," streaming on Netflix.

Toni Collette stars in "Stowaway," streaming on Netflix.   Credit: Netflix/Stowaway Productions, LLC, Augenschein Filmproduktion GmbH/RISE Filmproduktion GmbH

MOVIE "Stowaway"

WHERE Streaming on Netflix

WHAT IT'S ABOUT A crew of three astronauts heading to Mars on a privately funded two-year research mission discover a stowaway onboard their ship. When damage to a device that scrubs the air of carbon dioxide means there won't be enough oxygen left for everyone, things get a bit tense.

The Netflix movie "Stowaway" stars Toni Collette, Daniel Dae Kim and Anna Kendrick as the crew members Marina Barnett, David Kim and Zoe Levenson, respectively. Shamier Anderson plays Michael Adams, a launch plan engineer who falls out of a ceiling unconscious about 12 hours into the mission.

The film is directed by Joe Penna ("Arctic"), from a script he co-wrote with Ryan Morrison, and is streaming now.

MY SAY It is hard to believe that any two-year mission to Mars, or any spaceflight at all for that matter, would be permitted to take off without mission control accounting for every employee tasked with prepping the vessel.

Maybe it's possible. Maybe a mere journalist who knows nothing about the intricacies of preparing a launchpad could be wrong about this. But it seems to require a major suspension of disbelief.

What a surprise, then, to find that "Stowaway" is otherwise such a tightly written and engaging character piece that it overcomes the faulty premise.

It starts with the actors, who are predictably terrific, allowed to develop their characters with the thoughtfulness required to show what it might be like to face the specter of imminent death alone in space.

There's no turning back to Earth, no obvious solution for the depleted oxygen supply that might only be enough to keep three of the four souls onboard alive, and a burgeoning moral dilemma that's perhaps more daunting as this mortal threat.

It is a terrible burden to suddenly have a time frame for when you might die, and even more of one to know that you might be faced with making this decision for someone else.

This crisis plays out without anyone behaving in a predictable fashion: there's only one panic attack, one time, and otherwise an intriguing mix of calm professionalism and growing fear that feels different in each character.

Penna zeros in on the interpersonal dynamics without feeling the need to take the lazy way out of busying things up by showing off fancy special effects or introducing a supernatural presence.

While most of the movie plays as an intimate, character-driven drama in space, there's one astonishing visual set piece involving a daring climb outside the ship that serves as a textbook example of how to craft an action sequence correctly.

The filmmaker presents it with a combination of close-ups that humanize the daunting physical challenge and wide shots depicting the harrowing nature of this desperate survival struggle set against the lonely, foreboding expanse.

BOTTOM LINE "Stowaway" is an engaging, smart sci-fi drama despite launching with an unconvincing premise. The biggest shame of all is that it's premiering on Netflix and not in movie theaters, on the biggest possible screen.

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