The ‘cold equations’ of Netflix’s “Stowaway” (2021)…


2021’s Space Odyssey.

In a time where I’m still a bit pandemic-skittish about going back to cinemas, I decided to peruse my neglected Netflix queue when I came across “Stowaway”, a space flick released this past April. Starring Anna Kendrick (“Up in the Air”), Toni Colette (“The Sixth Sense”), Daniel Dae Kim (“Lost”) and Shamier Anderson (“Wynonna Earp”), “Stowaway” bears some similarity to Tom Godwin’s 1954 short story “The Cold Equations”, which was adapted as an episode of the 1980s revival of “The Twilight Zone.” There are also bits of “The Martian” and just a smidgeon of “Apollo 13” in the movie’s DNA as well, but minus the feel good-vibe of those earlier space survival epics.

Anna Kendrick is ship’s doctor and resident optimist Zoe Levenson, risking everything in hopes of saving just one passenger.

Kendrick, starring as physician/astronaut Zoe Levenson, is the audience-avatar; an eager young doctor on a voyage to Mars. Problem is, Zoe is stuck on a ship with an extra astronaut. In a ship that barely supports three, the crew learns there are four. Bottom line is that not everyone can make it to Mars, and the ship has gone too far and is going too fast to turn around…

“Stowaway” (2021).

The film opens with the launch of a manned spaceflight to rendezvous with an orbiting mothership bound for a two-year round trip to Mars. The three person crew of MTS-42 consists of Commander Marina Barnett (Toni Colette), ship’s biologist/botanist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim) and ship’s physician Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick). We see and feel the launch largely from Zoe’s perspective, as the eager young space rookie is violently jostled within her seat.

Note: Clever means of saving money in visual effects during the launch, as the camera focuses almost entirely on Zoe’s reaction to the violent fury of the ascent. This obvious budget-saving idea is effective, as it puts the focus on her character, and not on expensive exterior shots of the launch vehicle.

Daniel Dae Kim, Toni Collette and Anna Kendrick find themselves at “zero hour, nine a.m”…

During launch, Barnett notices that their trajectory is at the lower end of safety parameters. She readies the ‘abort’ switch. The flight control center of the “Hyperion” program (named after the Greek god) assures her that the error is still within operational limits and the crew are given permission to rendezvous with their orbiting cycler mothership—their ride to Mars. The commander is concerned with the anomalous reading, but like her crew, she is eager to connect with the orbiting mothership.

Note: The movie makes accurate use of Apollo 11 astronaut Dr. Edwin Buzz Aldrin’s “Cycler” Mars-transfer vehicle concept, which he proposed in his 2013 book, “Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration” (which I’ve read). The cycler would basically be an interplanetary ferry boat, traveling in an endless series of transfer orbits between Mars and Earth, carrying new crews to the red planet and returning astronauts to Earth on the way back. This would save considerable expense and time by reusing the same mothership for each mission.

Commander Barnett is alarmed by a discrepancy in her launch vehicle’s trajectory, but Hyperion Mission Control says “fuggetaboutit.”

After achieving orbit, the launch vehicle’s booster is attached to their mothership with 400 meters of cabling. The attached ship and booster will act as tumbling counterweights to create centripetal force (i.e. artificial gravity) for their five month voyage to Mars. Rookie Zoe is overjoyed at their successful rendezvous and gives her commander an unprofessional hug. Meanwhile, astronaut Kim is coping with space sickness and vomits in his handy puke collection bag. He assures his two fellow astronauts that he’ll be fine. They board the cycler and accelerate out of Earth orbit for Mars…

Note: The attached booster/cycler vehicle in the creates gravity for its crew on the long voyage by using the spent booster as a counterweight; this creates a midpoint axis of zero gravity between the tethered ends of the craft. The ends of the combined craft would experience simulated gravity using centripetal force (not centrifugal force—a common mistake I often make). Kim’s space sickness, known as “Space Adaptation Syndrome” (SAS) is a very common and well-documented side-effect of real-life space travel; roughly 60-80% of all astronauts/cosmonauts experience it. It comes from a lack of sensory orientation in microgravity—the eyes, inner-ear and brain are processing conflicting information as to what’s up or down, thus making a person feel nauseous.

No, it’s not Dr. Smith…

With artificial gravity engaged, the crew begins to settle in for their journey to Mars. David begins the botanical experiments he’s been preparing for the last three years. Zoe is taking in the view of a spinning, receding Earth through the main window. Commander Barnett, however, is still curious about that abnormality experienced during launch. She goes to investigate what seems to be a malfunction in the ship’s life support system. Opening a panel, she is knocked to the floor by the unconscious body of a man stuffed inside of the spaceship bulkhead (!). Barnett is knocked with such force that she’s broken her arm. With the bleeding, unconscious man taken to the medical bay, ship’s doctor Zoe also 3D-prints a hard cast for her commander’s broken arm as well. Calling Hyperion control, Zoe is outraged that someone has, either intentionally or accidentally, stowed away aboard her ship. Hyperion tells her that the man is a launch support engineer named Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson), whose presence there is most likely accidental. He was doing a pre-launch check, and was simply unaccounted for. Right

Note: Like the rocket-tipping sandstorm of Andy Weir’s “The Martian” (something the planet’s wispy-thin atmosphere would never allow), the idea of a human ‘stowaway’ aboard a spaceship is a conceit that you just have to accept for the movie to work. Something with the mass of a fully grown man (unlike a fly or an ant) would’ve been accounted for well before launch. Not to mention that ground support personnel, like Michael, regularly communicate with each other and would be far clear of the launch vehicle before takeoff. It’s also never made clear exactly how Michael sealed himself into the ceiling panels, either. This is a bit of required hand-waving in an otherwise scientifically accurate movie.

“Breathe deeply, now exhale.” Zoe, David and Barnett get a good look at the titular stowaway…

After Zoe stitches up a nasty wound in Michael’s side, the stowaway awakens to realize that he is still aboard the departing spaceship, and he panics. Zoe does best to calm him down, but Michael begs to be returned to Earth, since he is the legal guardian of his kid sister after an apartment fire orphaned them as children. Barnett is less concerned with Michael’s story as she is with the damage his presence accidentally caused to a key component of their life-support system. The component is broken and cannot be replaced. Feeling guilty over what’s happened (however accidentally), Michael asks to join their crew, as David and Zoe take their ‘reluctant astronaut’ passenger under their respective wings. Commander Barnett immediately assigns him to assist David in boosting plant production in the ship’s hydroponics bay in order to provide more oxygen to compensate for their failing life-support system.

Note: We see that the ship has a fully functioning (and fast) 3D printer, as Zoe immediately creates a hard cast for the commander’s broken arm. What I can’t understand is how the life-support system component could be so badly damaged that the ship’s (advanced) 3D printer wouldn’t be able to manufacture a replacement for it as well? One of the reasons a 3D printer would be such an essential piece of hardware on a long space voyage would be its ability to manufacture spare parts for vital systems, such as life-support. At the very least, you’d think they could get specs on the broken part from Hyperion ground control and manufacture a close approximation.

David and Michael talk botany and jazz. To be honest, I’m a little sick of jazz use in sci-fi movies and TV shows (see: Star Trek).

Barnett later assures Michael that his sister is being looked after at Hyperion’s expense, easing his anxiety. Working with David in the hydroponics bay, Michael learns how to grow plants and about the intricacies of jazz music, something he kiddingly tolerates for David’s sake, but can’t quite bring himself to enjoy. David warms to the affable Michael. The stowaway also bonds with Zoe, who is sympathetic to his plight. All things considered, Michael is adjusting. Unfortunately, Barnett receives a call from Hyperion, and gets some bad news…

Note: A minor nitpick, but as MTS-42 moves further away from Earth, communications with Hyperion in realtime would not be possible. Even as they fly beyond the orbit of the moon, they would start to notice time lags in their radio and video messages of a few seconds or more. As they flew closer to Mars, the lag would grow into minutes. Just sayin’….

“Houston? We have a problem…”

Barnett gathers David and Zoe for a private conference away from Michael’s ears. She tells them the painful truth; their ship will not support all four of them for the trip to Mars, not with its damaged life-support system. Hyperion ground control has offered them just ten days (no longer) to come up with a solution before a decision will have to be made regarding Michael’s fate. Forsaking many of the experiments planned for Mars, Barnett asks if David would use all of his super-growth algae to boost the ship’s oxygen levels. David reminds her that most of the equipment for the rapid algae growth is waiting for them on Mars, but the commander insists that he improvise. Zoe then suggests doing a spacewalk to retrieve any excess liquid oxygen fuel that might be remaining in their attached booster stage, which they’re using as a centripetal counterforce. Barnett dismisses that option, since the long spacewalk (across 400 meters of cable) could risk shorting out the electrical panels and kill them all. Normally, senior astronaut Barnett would be the most qualified to make the spacewalk, but with her broken arm that’s not an option. Commander Barrett’s role is more director than active participant.

Note: Toni Collette, whom I’d first became aware of in 1999’s brilliant supernatural mystery “The Sixth Sense” (for which she won a Golden Globe) is a brilliant performer with decades of experience, including the TV series “The United States of Tara” and countless films, such as “Knives Out” (2019). While I’ve heard her speak with American, British and other accents, “Stowaway” might be the first time I’ve heard her speak in her native Australian accent.

How to make emergency oxygen in space: “It’s algae, bruh…”

David breaks out the algae samples he’d planned for use on Mars-based experiments and gets to work. One batch produces viable oxygen, making enough for at least one person, but the second batch dies, leaving not enough for the four of them—right back where they started. Acting against the commander’s direct orders, David steals a syringe from Zoe’s medical supplies and offers it to Michael as a suicide option, struggling himself to assure the frightened Michael that his death would be painless—he’d simply inject himself and go to sleep.

Note: David is played by actor Daniel Dae Kim (“Lost”), who once guest starred on “Star Trek: Voyager” as a pioneering alien astronaut from a planet that experienced faster time passage than normal space in the sixth season episode “Blink of an Eye.” Like Michael in “Stowaway”, Kim’s character of “Gotana-Retz” was trapped aboard the starship Voyager when he realized that time was passing far more rapidly on his home planet and that he’d return generations after he left. Kim also appeared in three episodes of “Star Trek: Enterprise” and was a rumored contender for the role of Hikaru Sulu in the soft-reboot movie of “Star Trek” (2009). Kim lost the role to fellow South Korean-born actor John Cho.

“It’s lonely out in space…” Michael briefly considers David’s idea of committing suicide for the sake of the mission.

Finding Michael sitting alone with the syringe near the ship’s observation window, Zoe talks him down, assuring him that they will find another way somehow. She then tells Michael of how she herself was rescued at the beach while trying to save a drowning person once—a random boat came by at just the right moment. Zoe, ever the optimist, thinks that circumstances will somehow converge and allow them to save Michael as well. Later, she angrily confronts David for stealing the syringe without medical authority, but even the commander grudgingly admits that David may have been right. Zoe seems to be the only one passionately defending Michael’s right to live, even if it puts all of their lives at risk.

Note: Shamier Anderson’s Michael is a decent character, though I have to admit, I was initially worried that he might’ve been some kind of saboteur, like Dr. Smith in “Lost in Space.” But such a malevolent notion was quickly dispelled, and I sympathized with Michael…even if his ‘stowing away’ on a spaceship is utterly absurd, given the careful preplanning that goes into mass requirements for space launches. Despite Michael’s kindly disposition, a part of me also wonders why he wouldn’t be willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the others? He learns that his sister is being taken care of, and he has no other family. Personally, I’d feel far too selfish living at the expense of three other people’s lives, even if they were little more than friendly strangers to me.

Wear a mask! Barrett coaches Zoe and David on how to breathe in space…

With time running out, Barnett is willing to reconsider Zoe’s dangerous plan for a spacewalk across the centripetal tether lines to retrieve excess oxygen from their booster. Despite being senior astronaut, Barrett is unable to perform the spacewalk herself thanks to her arm, but she carefully coaches Zoe and David on the exact procedure for retrieving oxygen from the booster. Michael initially volunteers for spacewalk duty, but is unable to get a feel for it in time; he’s a ground engineer, not an astronaut.

Note: Not trying to sound like a Grim Reaper again, but that syringe option for poor Michael should’ve been seriously reconsidered before putting half the ship’s complement in such wild jeopardy.

Zoe realizes that space is like, really really big.

Taking a pair of empty pressure canisters with them, Zoe and David use hooks, tethers and winch lines to ascend the 400 meter length. As they approach the solar panels in the middle of the tether lines, gravity decreases. David struggles with his space sickness, doing his best to focus on the cable directly in front of him, instead of the disorienting tumble used to simulate gravity. As David has to pause for periodic breaks, the younger Zoe is more physically adept. Carefully avoiding the sensitive photovoltaic panels in the center axis, they soon rappel towards the booster. As they approach their destination, gravity begins to build again, giving them a sense of falling. They use their grappling equipment to slow their otherwise rapid descent…

Note: Serious kudos to the movie for its scientific accuracy during its spacewalk sequence. The astronauts’ orientations to the central axis, as well as the simulated gravity at either end of the spinning tether are very well executed. This scrappy, $10 million dollar Germany-lensed movie pulls off a far better and more accurate spacewalk than many of its bigger-budgeted, flashier cousins, including 2013’s “Gravity.”

David and Zoe realize their entire, physics-accurate spacewalk may have been for nothing.

Zoe reaches the booster and loosens an access panel. Forgetting the (ahem) ‘gravity’ of her situation, she accidentally allows the panel to fall away. Once inside the cramped, claustrophobic crawlspace she finds the spare liquid oxygen storage; it has enough liquid oxygen to barely fill two tanks. As the first tank fills, a klaxon from the ship sounds over their comms. They ask Barnett what’s wrong, and the commander tells them that a solar storm is rapidly closing on their position. The two spacewalkers will hit fatal radiation exposure in about 20 minutes. Forced to leave the empty second tank behind in the booster’s bay, Zoe climbs back with a single filled canister. Just as they cross the central access and make their way back into the ship, Zoe accidentally drops the air tank. Given the cycler ship’s simulated gravity, the tank ‘falls’ in space, quickly tumbling out of reach…

Note: Kudos to the movie’s lead Anna Kendrick, whom I enjoyed in 2009’s “Up in the Air” as an ambitious yuppie following George Clooney’s corporate footsteps, learning the etiquette of how to fire people. I initially thought her bubbly, youthful energy in “Stowaway” felt more fitting to an early 2000s Jennifer Love Hewitt, but I soon realized that her character is supposed to be a wellspring of optimism and enthusiasm. Anna Kendrick also handles the physical demands of the role, such as the simulated spacewalking, with aplomb.

An exhausted David and Zoe return to the ship empty-handed.

Forced to reenter the ship empty-handed after their challenging spacewalk, the crew are forced to wait out the solar storm in the ship’s radiation shelter—the innermost section of the vessel. As the waiting stretches into hours, Zoe decides to take the initiative, choosing to sacrifice herself by doing another spacewalk during the storm to fill the second oxygen tank. She suits up again, and steps out into the solar storm. Green cosmic particles violently pierce and burn the outer layers of Zoe’s suit, as the intense radiation literally begins to slowly cook her skin. Without having to wait for the space sick David, Zoe makes her ascent and descent along the tether lines even more rapidly, reaching the booster and pressurizing the second tank. She manages to get back to the ship and pass the full canister of liquid oxygen on to her grateful shipmates, whom she will not be joining…

Solar particles striking the upper atmosphere excite oxygen molecules, thus producing the greenish color of aurorae.

Note: Solar particles themselves don’t have a green coloring; in fact, they’re pretty much invisible unless interacting with something else. Solar particles appear to be green in atmospheric aurorae because they are interacting with the oxygen of our upper atmosphere. These ‘green’ rays are a minor but understandable science fudge to make the danger more visually apparent for the audience. Once again, for a movie with a micro-budget, “Stowaway” goes out of its way to accurately depict the hazards of manned spaceflight.

Zoe, sickened by radiation and near death, looks on in the direction of Mars…the planet she’ll never reach.

As the planet Mars looms far off in the distance ahead of her, we hear Zoe’s voiceover:

“You never know where life’s gonna take you. Yes, I applied to the HARP program because I thought it would be a funny story to be rejected by Hyperion. But now I realize this is one of those rare opportunities that could truly give my life meaning beyond anything I could imagine.”

The End.

Calculating ‘Cold Equations’.

The underrated “Twilight Zone” revival of the 1980s had some real gems in its three season run (1985-9). One of these was an adaptation of Tom Godwin’s 1954 short story “The Cold Equations” (which was also adapted as the little-seen 1955 movie, “X Minus One”). This “Twilight Zone” episode saw astronaut Thomas Bartin (Terence Knox) on a routine interplanetary cargo run who discovers his tightly budgeted-for-weight spacecraft has an extra passenger—a teenage girl named Marilyn Cross (Christianne Hirt) who snuck aboard the cargo ship to surprise her brother on Earth. Like “Stowaway,” this version of the story didn’t well either, with the young girl making a tearful video goodbye to her brother as she is forced to expel herself into space. Twilight Zone’s adaptation of he story, scripted by Alan Brennart (“Buck Rogers in the 25th Century”), was essentially a duet between Bartin and Marilyn, with the veteran astronaut trying everything and anything in his power to lighten the load of this carefully-allotted cargo to make room for the young stowaway—but to no avail. The young woman is doomed.

Based on Tom Godwin’s short story, Twilight Zone’s “The Cold Equations” (1989) is the truest antecedent of Netflix’s “Stowaway.”

The story is jarring and hard-hitting, making it one of the best episodes of the post-1960s Twilight Zone revivals (there have been three so far). However, what works for a half hour TV episode may not work as well for a nearly two hour feature film. “Stowaway” sees the characters scrambling to find ways to accommodate their extra passenger; accelerating plant production to increase oxygenation, performing dangerous spacewalks to retrieve extra liquid oxygen left in the attached booster, etc. but ultimately to no avail. One character has to die, and sadly for the movie, it’s the film’s most likable character as well. This sets up an anticlimax for the viewer. There’s a reason audiences will see survival epics like “Apollo 13” or “The Martian” more than once; it’s because our investment in the characters is paid off. For all of the trials and tribulations Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is put through in “The Martian,” he, and the audience, are ultimately rewarded with the endorphin release of a happy ending. Not so with “Stowaway.”

Andy Weir’s “The Martian” (2015) is another Mars mission survival epic, but with a brighter, more optimistic core.

At the very least, writer/director Joe Penna could’ve tacked on a coda where we see the surviving crew actually arriving at Mars. Allowing the audience to see that would’ve given Zoe’s sacrifice the very meaning she alludes to in her voiceover. Then again, maybe the movie’s $10 million budget didn’t allow for an expensive coda on Mars, but it certainly would’ve helped. As is, “Stowaway” feels incomplete—a sacrifice, but minus the emotional payday.

Summing It Up.

MTS-42: A very unfunny thing happened on the way to Mars…

For all of the seeds of its good ideas, “Stowaway” doesn’t quite come to fruition. This is not a movie I’d want to see more than once. While I appreciate the story’s grim commitment to almost 1970s-style nihilism, it really could’ve used a bit more payoff for the audience’s emotional investment. After all the characters go through, the ending just feels like a meek surrender. “Stowaway” has a strong cast, some credible space science, and solid production value for its tight budget, yet it still falls short.

So close

Viewing Options.

“Stowaway” is currently available to stream on Netflix and is in limited theatrical release as well, with theaters gradually reopening (masks may be required). To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are just over 590,212 as of this writing.  Meanwhile, several vaccines are available and inoculations are finally widespread (whew!), which is greatly slowing the US mortality rate (though numbers in Brazil and India are spiking dramatically). Given a certain level of vaccine hesitancy, it may take a while longer for for eventual herd immunity. Even vaccinated, it may still be possible to catch the coronavirus, though your chances of getting ill from it are slim-to-none.  So, if you haven’t already done so, please get vaccinated as soon as possible (I myself have been fully vaccinated now for over a month now), and let us vaccinate our way out of the COVID pandemic.

Images: Netflix, 20th Century Fox, CBS

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