Stowaway

Last Saturday, on Netflix, I watched Stowaway (2021) an engaging and compelling hard science fiction film by a new filmmaker, Joe Penna. The story, which has only four characters, is reminiscent of Gravity (2013) or Apollo 13 (1995), not only in how it involves a disaster aboard a small spacecraft, but in how it tries to respect physics as much as possible. (Apollo 13, of course, was a real story which made it a lot easier.)

It is, on both counts, also similar to The Martian (2015), in which it bears a third similarity — a connection to Mars. They differ, however, in that The Martian is about a guy trying to get away from Mars whereas Stowaway is about three people trying to get to Mars.

The disaster for them is the fourth person, the stowaway.

Making the calculus all the more challenging, the nature of the disaster is such that now only two of the four can survive all the way to Mars. I’ll warn you that the story does not have an ending involving a phrase such as, “and the solution they come up with to save them all is ingenious!” While they do defeat the initial calculus, the ending will make you sad.

I want to avoid spoilers here (I feel I’ve already said too much), because the journey to the ending is beautifully done and should be appreciated as innocently as possible. What I’ll try stick to are some of the sights along the way.

I recommend Stowaway to all true science fiction fans and especially those with a taste for hard SF. Note that it is far more like the films I’ve listed and not particularly like The Expanse or similar shows. This isn’t space opera, this is space drama and almost space documentary. I give it a Wow! rating.

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Fundamentally, this is a lifeboat (or stranded vehicle) and available resources story. There are planes that crash on distant islands or mountain tops, cars that break down in the desert, ocean liners that capsize due to huge waves, people stranded in cabins, caves, lifeboats, and now spaceships.

It boils down to the question: How will I/we eat, find water, breath, or otherwise not die? The main course is served with a side dish of: Is rescue/escape/going back possible? A lot of the clever in stories like this comes from making sure there aren’t obvious outs without being too arbitrary about what makes the problems hard to solve.

Left to right: Michael (stowaway), Zoe (doctor), David (biologist), Marina (commander). Note Marina’s injured arm.

The filmmakers, Joe Penna and writing partner Ryan Morrison, made explicit effort to create a story where the failures and challenges feel organic to the setting. The difficulty for them is that such missions have lots of backup systems and alternate options. They needed to create a situation that felt natural, where there were no obvious “Well, why didn’t they just…” questions.

I think they did an excellent job, and the design of the spacecraft plays major role.

§

One thing that really stands out to me about the film is that, despite the care that went into the science, the story doesn’t wallow in technolust. I suspect this is because Penna and Morrison are more interested in telling a good disaster story that happens to be set in space. Mere verisimilitude demanded they get the physics as right as possible.

For instance the spacecraft. Artificial gravity, for now and the foreseeable future, is science fiction magic, which leaves more scientifically serious storytellers two options:

  1. Constant acceleration
  2. Spinning some part of the vehicle

The former is energetically prohibitive in the real world, so not really an option without adding a dash of magic (the Epstein drive in The Expanse, for instance). That leaves spinning something, usually something round.

The thing is, to avoid pronounced Coriolis force effects making everyone sick, the radius needs to be as long as possible. That space station wheel in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), for instance, was huge.

(2001 is another hard SF disaster-in-a-spacecraft movie. One I’ve always had a soft spot for is Silent Running (1972). I can think of at least one more… No, not Alien (1979) or any sequel, that’s too obvious.)

Michael and Zoe in the ship’s outside observation area.

The problem with a wheel is that it implies a very large spacecraft. Which implies a lot of money and effort to make one. In fiction, the financial aspects are often ignored, but this story sticks to what’s reasonable and plausible.

So the spacecraft here is roughly the size of the ISS space station, but is connected to the rocket booster the brought the crew by a set of 450-meter tethers and spun up to provide gravity in the living modules. It very cleverly means the filmmakers didn’t need to fake zero-gee except in a few scenes.

It also means one is less distracted by checking out those zero-gee effects. It’s a big win in my eyes. Gravity without any magic.

On top of all that, the ship’s design provides the setting for the action sequences at the climax when they realize there is liquid oxygen in the rocket booster. Getting to it means climbing the tethers, going uphill to the center of rotation and then descending to the booster. Returning means doing it again. Slipping and falling means falling forever into space.

In what might be a bit of a stretch, Mission Control advises them to sacrifice the stowaway and opposes any effort to reach that LOX in the booster. The calculus is that it risks one or more astronauts, each of whom is vital to the mission. One does wonder about the publicity effects of Mission Control’s advice. On the other hand, what other advice is really possible if the risk of an EVA is legitimately deemed too high?

§

Part of that calculus is that only the ship’s commander, Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), is an experienced astronaut with previous missions. She’s also the only pilot, so can’t be risked, plus her arm was injured in the discovery of the stowaway, a launch support engineer, Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson).

She opens a ceiling panel, and an unconscious Michael falls on her. He was knocked unconscious during a procedure he was doing. (We’ll have to assume Mission Control was a little sloppy about head-count.)

A key problem is that Michael’s body became entangled with, and irreparably damaged, the CO2 scrubber. And Michael. (Apparently there is no spare for the scrubber. That’s a little sloppy, too, but there is the implication of commercial sensibilities and financial limits. Originally these missions had only two astronauts but, perhaps straining the system unwisely, at some point a third was added.)

Two of the crew begin a climb to get the LOX 450 meters away.

The other two crew members, Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick), a doctor, and David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim), a biologist, have no experience in space. Their training has primarily been for the work they’ll do on Mars, with only enough space travel training to make the journey safely and deal with emergencies.

Tip: There’s an early scene, prior to their discovery of Michael, where journalists back on Earth interview the crew. Pay attention to the foreshadowing suggested by why each of the three is on this mission. (Remember the tropes about the cop one week (or day) from retirement or the fresh-faced kid in war movies who just got engaged and has big plans.)

David actively, and Marina with resignation, lean towards accepting Mission Control’s direction. David goes so far as to give Michael one of Zoe’s syringes filled with a bye-bye-forever compound. Zoe is livid and insists they find a better solution.

No one can come up with one.

The mid-point, the center of rotation of the transport.

Except the LOX in the rocket booster. Having that much oxygen would allow them to periodically vent the CO2 and restock with fresh O2.

The crew agrees to take the risk. Marina is injured and can’t be risked anyway. Michael tries to learn the tether climbing technique, but can’t find the knack. Zoe is the one who wanted to do it all along, so she’s up for it.

The weak link is David and his vertigo. He was sick on the way up, and struggled with being in space at first. But, in part from guilt about the syringe, he’s determined to make the journey.

The rest of the film is about what happens. I’ll only say that despite the sad, there’s also a literal beauty to the ending (that makes it all the more poignant). The conclusion, to me, felt exactly right. This film, in general, felt exactly right to me. The filmmakers nailed it.

§

Part of that is in making a hard SF film that puts the technology so far into the background some may not fully realize everything that’s going on. This is one case where, if you already know, you’ll pick up on things they say, but if you don’t, it’ll just zip right overhead. Everything has been very well thought out.

The living module, the ISS-like part, is in a permanent elliptical orbit that intersects with that of both Earth and Mars. Since it’s already in orbit, missions can hitch a ride by simply getting from the surface into planetary orbit when the transport swings by.

The booster rocket is their ticket home. It’s docked in the opposite end of the tethers from the permanent living module. Unless a crew (and booster) is aboard, the tethers are withdrawn. After a crew docks and transfers to the living module, the tethers are extended to provide gravity. At Mars, the tethers withdraw, the crew transfers back to the rocket and flies to the surface. The return trip is the same in reverse.

Note that a better system uses multiple transports so you don’t have to wait for the one to come around once a year.

This also explains why the transport has become a bit worn and mission safety perhaps a bit casual. This transport business has been going on for a while. This part of going to Mars isn’t research or science; it’s a business.

§ §

From my notes…

First scene, takeoff sequence, kicks things off nicely. Really pulled me into the story immediately. An interesting artistic choice: Focus is entirely on the inside, on the faces of the three astronauts. No outside CGI shots of any kind. The as-yet unknown stowaway causes their launch profile to vary from the norm, but within acceptable limits. Another bit of foreshadowing.

(It’s possible the choice is driven by budget, but then it’s a great example of making a limit into a feature. More than. It’s so perfect you realize it’s better this way even if the budget for CGI did exist.)

The transport has a lived in feel. The badges and signatures from previous missions, for instance. This particular mission is MTS-42.

Another interesting artistic choice: The interview stays strictly within the spacecraft. We never hear the interviewer’s question. We also never hear Mission Control — just some indistinct sounds. The story is tightly focused on events inside the spacecraft and the four characters. It’s them and the universe, overall a great approach, I thought.

Some didn’t like the pacing, but I thought it builds nicely. (People aren’t used to such small stories, perhaps.) We don’t really see the outside of the ship until about halfway through.

I expected more safety tethers during their climb. Perhaps because they were in a hurry.

§ §

As I’ve already said, I give this a Wow! rating and recommend it to just about anyone, but especially to space travel geeks. It’s good hard SF with well-posed challenges and realistic reactions.

Just don’t expect a funny cookie during the credits.

Stay stowed away, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

16 responses to “Stowaway

  • Wyrd Smythe

    It’s a very good example that you don’t need a zillion dollars, wall-to-wall CGI, and city-wrecking action scenes to tell a good story. (Indeed, those things often are just a distraction to good storytelling.)

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I tried the first episode of M.O.D.O.K. on Hulu. Turns out its part of the Marvel silliness, and this half-hour “sit-com” is a claymation animation that rides the coat-tails of “superheroes as regular people with families” motif. It’s mainly focused on dumbass gags, and I found the first episode excruciatingly stupid and lame.

    Definite thumbs down and possibly an Ugh! rating, but I’ll have to force myself to watch at least one more episode to give it a chance.

  • Anonymole

    The whole botany story was a screw up, in my opinion. Practically everything done was in part due to the need for O2. The frantic, absolutist way the plants were handled was unbelievable.

    Every space journey story always spins the occupants around the axis of travel. This, as you mentioned, induces the Coriolis affect. No one ever thinks to spin the habitats with the axis perpendicular to the direction of travel. Like a wheel on a bicycle. Although, now that I think of this for the 10th time…, as long as one is not accelerating along the axis of travel, then no additional inertia would be induced on the occupants.

    Lastly, the solar storm? Bunk. They would have been alerted days before the actual plasma impacted the ship. Solar flares precede CMEs by days. It would have been the x-ray/radio burst of the flare that triggered the alert.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Heh, yeah, as the Cinema Sins guys say, “No movie is without sin.” And science fiction is extra difficult to get right. My forgiveness threshold was pretty high on this one, in part because I liked that opening scene so much. And because they took the science pretty seriously compared to most SF. (The Expanse gets a lot of latitude from me on that count, too.)

      For me the solar storm was probably the worst offense. It’s hard to “Star Trek” that one. One might imagine a plotline involving damage to their ability to know or some undetected radiation burst, although that might be contrary to how they pushed tech into the background. The danger is real enough, but the surprise of it is a bit of a weak link. They needed a way to resolve the calculus, and no doubt worked backwards from the ending they decided worked. (It was a a sore thumb for me, too, I did notice it, but I didn’t get into it here because spoilers. Let’s be careful how we talk about it.)

      You know… there weren’t many CGI shots of the thing… was it traveling edge-on? With a rigid structure the flat-on approach makes sense. When the ship does accelerate, flat-on would handle the stresses better, I’d guess. But with tethers that can be withdrawn, there’s no reason it couldn’t spin edge-on. It seems like I saw one shot that makes me think maybe they did?

      I’m pretty forgiving about the botany problem, although that could be due to my ignorance of botany (or even gardening). Seems like I can make up reasons why it didn’t work out. Maybe David just wasn’t that good, or the stress made him screw up, or… But maybe a botanist would be all, yeah, right!

      Being more a hardware guy, having only one CO2 scrubber they can’t fix bothered me a little more. Or completely misplacing an engineer known to be working on board. Oops! 😮

      Still, though. When I add up the pros and cons, and compare it to other work (and given my love for smaller films), I came down way in favor. It’s one of those films where my regard increased upon reflection rather than decreased. Which is rare for me!

      • Anonymole

        Could have done (maybe someone has) the story with a large broken sailboat, a small crew and a stowaway who they decide to eat first — or not.

        I did like the tether mechanism. And may be they were spinning inline (but I doubt it, I’ve never seen it done in any example previously). I’d have thought they could just reel themselves up tighter to do maint. etc. They’ll have to do that at their destination — and before they begin to decelerate.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        The eating thing has been done (twice?) with airplanes crashing in the mountain. One (both?) is based on a true story. Wouldn’t surprise me if there was a shipwreck or lifeboat story along those lines.

        That’s a good point about just reeling in the tethers. That would have made the LOX easily available, and I can’t see any reason they couldn’t give up having spin gravity. I wonder if there’s a line in the film about that. I don’t recall any.

        As for spinning edge-on, there is an idea for a bolo-style space elevator (as opposed to the fixed tower kind). You put a giant three-arm bolo in orbit — its center of rotation orbiting and its spin edge-on. The bolo arms are long enough that the modules at the end nearly touch the Earth’s surface, and the nature of things is that at the lowest point they seem to pause briefly. The scale of things makes that pause long enough for on- and off-loading. Then the module gets whipped way the hell out into space with a bonus push from the bolo rotation. You just launch at the high point.

      • Anonymole

        I recall Isaac Arthur’s u-toob demonstrating that fidget-spinner style LEO lift mechanism. Was fascinating to realize its physics and how it might work. ‘Course, all that is bunk given the inability to create cables that could withstand the tension.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        For now, sure, but what I recall from reading Robert L. Forward’s essay about it is that the necessary material strengths are possible in principle. It’s possible to have something that strong; we just have no clue how to make it.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        There’s probably a book, if not a series, there about the brave souls who carve out a precarious living harvesting space spider silk. The Space Silk Stalkers!

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Sounds interesting. I was initially intrigued when I saw the ads, but my enthusiasm waned after the reviews came in and it sounded like it was based on “The Cold Equations”, a short story I read decades ago and didn’t have any particular urge to experience again. But the idea of a (mostly) accurate portrayal of how a space mission might work means I’ll almost certainly have to watch it eventually. There just aren’t that many movies of that type around.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      No, and on that count alone gets some extra points from me. Also that it’s a small film that doesn’t depend on exciting action scenes to carry it.

      It does have some connection with “The cold Equation” but (based on the Wiki article for the short story) seems more different than similar. Mostly the similarity is that an extra person on a spacecraft is a problem, and the main solution is they have to die. Reasons, details, themes, and resolution, all differ though. Different enough that maybe comparison with the short story won’t be an issue.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Thanks. Good to know. I think the wiki article conveys my chief beef with the story, one I noticed even as a teenager when I first read it, in that the scenario was too thinly contrived. From what you describe, it sounds like there is more to the scenario in the movie than systems designed with no margin for error.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yep, loss of CO2 scrubbing, which meant they’d poison themselves. Same problem Naomi faced in that spacesuit while trapped on that ship. Apollo 13 crew also, as I recall. The extra LOX meant they could periodically vent the poison cabin air and refresh.

        It’s not perfect by any stretch (see the thread with Anonymole) but all-in-all I still give it a Wow! rating. I’m pretty forgiving on probability. I’ll excuse a fair amount of coincidence and convenience so long as it’s not so garish I can’t ignore it.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Speaking of Netflix movies (or at least movies I saw in Netflix), the other night I watched The Mitchells vs. the Machines, an animation from Sony Pictures. It’s a first effort from Mike Rianda, a writer, director, animator, and voice actor, who worked on Gravity Falls.

    It was… okay. I almost turned it off several times during the first 20 minutes, it began to get better in the next 20, and after the 40-minute mark it had enough laughs to keep me watching. It’s lame and dumb and derivative and cliched with lots of unearned beats, but has a few good bits. Mostly I’d give it a general thumbs down, but I laughed enough to give it an Eh! rating. (Based only on the first half-hour or so, I would have to give it a Meh! rating.)

    It’s cartoonish family fare with a handful of good laughs.

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