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.
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.
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:
- Constant acceleration
- 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.)
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.)
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.
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.