Stowaway has a set up that at face value feels a lot like The Martian, except instead of accidentally leaving someone behind on Mars they accidentally take an extra person along to Mars.
The cast, which includes Anna Kendrick, Daniel Dae Kim, Toni Collette, and Shamier Anderson, deserves a lot better than the material they’re given. The script by Ryan Morrison and director Joe Penna mocks their performances of grief and rage with its incoherence. As the stowaway, Anderson does particularly heavy lifting, getting to go from panicked disbelief at finding himself in space, to a shy eagerness to throw himself into helping, to an enraged sorrow at the unfairness of the prospect of death. But all the gorgeous authenticity of the acting casts into sharp relief just how badly the script lets the cast down.
In practice Stowaway ends up being a boorish retread of Tom Godwin’s legendary short-story “The Cold Equations,” without actually taking into account the seventy years of think pieces that have been written about why that story is misogynistic emotional torture porn with a glossy sheen of space survival so that its fans can pretend it’s about having to make hard choices.
Stowaway’s setup is that the ship doesn’t have enough air to get four people to Mars, and so one of the four has to die so the others can live. Notice that nowhere in there did I say that they need to try to science the shit out of the situation like Mark Watney. Nope. They barely realize Shamier Anderson is aboard before Daniel Dae Kim is handing him a needle full of sunshine and asking why he doesn’t do the right thing and kill himself.
That’s the core and nuanced criticism of “The Cold Equations” as well. It’s not that you can’t write a story where hard choices have to be made or even to write a story in which they are necessary. It’s that you as the writer are the one who decides what the focus of the lens of that story is. It’s all in the framing. The framing and focus of the story, the emotional beats that you linger on, that you want to the audience to roll around in their heads, are not neutral choices. Where you point your camera is a statement that twists any objective set of events into an infinity of different stories. That’s what makes a movie art and not just a synopsis.
In “The Cold Equations,” the focus is entirely on the emotional turmoil of the young woman who is going to be tossed out of an airlock, in contrast with the manly rational pilot who objectively is the better choice to survive since he knows how to fly the ship. As many other writers have pointed out over the years, there’s an almost smug misogyny to the triumph of levelheaded dude reason over emotion. The story could have the same series of events, the same outcome, but with vastly different artistic merit if the lens shifts. The story’s focus could have been the tragedy of the situation, the criminality of a ship with no margin of error, or the noble—if doomed—efforts to find a solution.
Stowaway makes the same mistake of deciding that the outcome is going to be tragic and then focusing all of the attention on the choice of who is going to die, while being smugly dismissive of any character trying to find an actual solution. It could question who the f*ck built a spaceship with no backup systems, or launched it into space without the slightest capacity for rescue, or what kind of agency launches a rocket and somehow misses a guy having been knocked out and stuck behind a bolted-in bulkhead. It could have been about people trying their best and failing. Instead, it opted for declaring that they’d tried nothing and were all out of ideas.
I mean was Jigsaw running Mission Control?
These problems are all intensified because if you’re going to write a story insisting that sometimes you have to face reality and make hard choices, then you better have at least some notion of the science in your science-fiction.
Case in point. First, the ship’s carbon dioxide scrubber is damaged. This is the thing that removes carbon dioxide from the air. Then, the characters declare, well, the problem isn’t that we have too much CO2, because we can just dump that, but then we’ll run out of oxygen. So what we really need is a bunch of oxygen.
How do they just dump out the carbon dioxide? Do they take turns plucking the carbon dioxide molecules out of the air and tossing them in the garbage can? I know one of my hobbies is sorting molecules with a set of tweezers.
That’s … just … gibberish. Like, a second-grader who memorized the whole thing about how animals breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide while plants suck up the carbon dioxide and spit out oxygen is side-eying the entire plot structure there.
The science in science-fiction doesn’t have to be perfect, but for f*ck’s sake it has to pass the sniff test of an elementary school science fair, especially if you’re going to frame the entire story around the hard choices being dictated by the science of the situation.
Or let’s take the difficult concept of the basic passage of time. The crew repeatedly discusses how they have ten days of safety margin left. Until the inevitable radiation solar storm plot MacGuffin starts, at which point they cannot possibly wait “hours” for it to end and instead someone has to go get nuked to get the rest of them air.
Or take the example of how it only takes them thirty seconds to realize, hey, maybe the rocket at the other end of our tether has some leftover oxygen from take-off. Rather than go and look, they are told, whoa man, it’s way too dangerous to do that. Know what’s more dangerous than a spacewalk? Literally killing yourself. The movie very specifically tells its characters that it is better to lay down and die than try to survive.
It’s like if Captain Kirk started up the Kobayashi Maru and instead of cheating to win just phasered himself in the balls. Your move, Starfleet, YOUR MOVE.
Stowaway is now on Netflix.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.