Thursday, April 22, 2021

Survival choices on a voyage to Mars

            Stowaway, the latest space adventure from Netflix launches another flight to Mars, the planet where NASA just flew a robotic helicopter and where Elon Musk wants to start a colony.
               When it comes to Mars, maybe it's time to stop fictionalizing and watching the news. Still, Mars remains a prime destination for movies that need a deep-space destination.
        Operating in what seems to be the relatively near future, Stowaway mercifully avoids any sign of acid-drooling aliens, but slow pacing and a quartet of less-than-fascinating characters keep the movie from turning into the gripping survival story that must have been intended.
   The title tells you this is no ordinary voyage. A construction engineer trapped in the ship’s innards becomes an inadvertent stowaway on a three-person trip to Mars, a problem that can be described as a "mega-oops," to employ the scientific term for such catastrophes.
    When the equipment that cleans the ship's air of carbon dioxide is rendered non-functional,  the crew is threatened by a looming shortage of oxygen. Three people might make it Mars. Four? No way.
   Director Joe Penna plunges a diversified cast (Toni Collette, Anna Kendrick, Daniel Dae Kim, and Shamier Anderson) into the most severe of ethical problems. Must one of them die so that the others can complete the already battered mission?
   The spaceship Hyperion generates its own gravity, which means the actors don’t need to spend the entire movie floating around — not literally at least. But they are left somewhat adrift by a script in which character depth seems in almost as short supply as sunlight.
   Collette portrays Marina, the commander of the flight. Kim plays David, the science officer charged with maintaining algae that will be used to test possibilities for colonization of Mars. Kendrick appears as Zoe, the ship’s cheerful doctor, and Anderson plays the title character,  a man who, as it turns out, is less a stowaway than a victim of a mistake the movie doesn’t adequately explain.
    Most of the characters can be described with a word or two: Marina, responsible. David, realistic. Zoe, humane; and Anderson, unhinged. 
    Not everything computes. Anderson's Michael worries about the needy sister he’s left on Earth for what promises to be two difficult years. But wait. The company that's paying for this trip will take care of the sister -- all expenses paid.
    This raises a question: Why did the screenplay give Michael a sister in the first place? Isn't learning that you'll unexpectedly be leaving everything you know and love for two years enough cause for anxiety.
   Credit Penna and production designer Marco Bittner Rosser with creating a realistic shipboard environment, as well as a convincing EVA episode (of course, there’s one) that shows off the ship’s exterior.
   Though interesting to ponder, the movie’s central issue doesn’t  translate into an exiting one-hour and 56-minute movie,  and Stowaway misses its mark as either brainy sci-fi or a visceral space adventure. 
   Members of the Hyperion crew face a horrible choice. Deciding how to deal with it may be working on the their guts, but that doesn't mean it's working on ours.

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