The engines strain just a bit after takeoff. It’s not much, but enough to indicate something’s wrong.
Trips to Mars are inherently perilous, filled with elements and hazards that can’t be controlled. So everything that can be controlled is weighed and measured and analyzed, the numbers double and triple checked. The engines are primed to be in tip-top shape, the weight of the rocket is calculated to the ounce. Just a tiny error here or a loss of power there can make the difference between landing on the planet and running out of gas on the way.
So when Commander Marina Barnett sees that the engines are underperforming, she’s prepared to abort the mission and fly back home. But ground control tells her everything is fine: Sure, the rocket would need to use a little more fuel, but everything falls well within safety parameters.
The commander is relieved. After all, turning around would be pretty disappointing to the three people on board.
Barnett’s leading her last mission, capping a fine career in space. For scientist David Kim, who’s hoping to turn Mars into a livable, breathable world, it’s the culmination of years of research.
And Zoe? Well, for the young doctor, the thrill of the trip is like 10,000 vacations to Disneyland all rolled into one. Never in a bazillion years did Zoe imagine she’d go to Mars. Now that she is, she plans to make the most of it.
The ship makes it out of orbit just fine, kicks in its little gravitational field, and the three-person crew settles in for what will be a five-month trip.
But then the commander sees something else unexpected: blood. Blood that seems to be dripping from an overhead hatch.
She unscrews the hatch and whomp! A body falls out—right on her arm. Curse that gravitational field.
The man’s unconscious, but not dead. He’ll be awake soon enough, and their little party to Mars just got an unexpected plus-one.
Yep, ground control keeps an eye on what astronauts bring aboard the craft, right down to the ounce. But somehow, they missed a whole body. And you know what they say: Three’s company, four’s a crowd. Especially when you’re talking about an already crowded spaceship.
But as the commander looks up to where the man was stowed and sees a smoking MDRA unit—what the ship needs to scrub away carbon dioxide—she gets the sinking feeling that their problems are just beginning.
Yeah, some guy hitched a very exclusive ride into space. But he didn’t mean to. Michael—that’s the guy’s name—is just as freaked as anybody to find that he’s on his way to Mars. And he’d sure like to go back if he could. Michael is his baby sister’s legal guardian, and she’s counting on him to be with her—not, literally, millions of miles away. He cares for her deeply, and we can see the depth of his concern throughout the film.
The commander comes up with a good workaround for Michael’s sister back home, which leaves them all to address the big (and growing) problems they must solve in order to continue the mission—or, at least, to survive it.
Ultimately, the biggest problem is this: There’s not enough oxygen for the four of them to make it to Mars. Barring some wildly creative solution, it would seem that they’re in a no-win ethical conundrum: Either one of them must die, or they all will.
Each member of the crew faces this conundrum in different ways. But it’s clear that each wants to do the “right” thing, as near as they can figure out what that is. Each sacrifices—or shows a willingness to sacrifice—for his or her fellows.
And even when people make mistakes (and they do), rarely do we hear recriminations. Rather, there’s a collective effort to move on and be as mutually supporting as they can possibly be. We even see a pretty hefty example of forgiveness in the mix, too.
None. But the film does, unintentionally, reflect a spiritual value or two (such as the emphasis on forgiveness I mentioned above) and thus could become a springboard for greater conversation.
None, though Michael does remove his shirt at one point.
When Michael falls through the hatch, he lands on the commander’s arm, apparently breaking it. As Zoe tends to the injury, she asks, “How are you not screaming in pain right now?”
“It … hurts,” the commander says, clearly understating the problem.
Michael’s hurt, too. He was obviously unconscious during takeoff (he was apparently knocked out by something as he was arming the second-stage firing pins) and only comes to 12 hours later. He’s also sporting a massive gash along his gut, which we see Zoe dutifully stitch up (and attend to later when some of those stitches rip).
As she works on the wound the second time, Zoe notices a large burn scar on his torso. Later, Michael says that he suffered it in an apartment fire: Michael’s father pulled him and his little sister, Ava, to safety, but Dad didn’t make it. Zoe relates her own story, about how she once helped rescue a drowning man.
A perilous spacewalk ends with someone falling hard onto the roof of the ship they’re riding in. (As mentioned, the craft generates its own gravity field.) A radiation storm causes someone to suffer what look like burns. One crew member gives Michael what amounts to a suicide drug that, the giver says, will be “painless.”
[Spoiler Warning] Someone does indeed die.
The f-word is used six times and the s-word another seven. We also hear “h—,” Two misuses of God’s name and one abuse of Jesus’s name.
Zoe asks David jokingly whether he’d like a beer. Zoe reminisces about some “drunk guys” on a beach, most of whom apparently passed out.
David vomits in an air sickness bag as the ship begins generating its gravitational field (leading to what amounts to 5 G’s of pull), and he seems to suffer more from the effects of space than the others.
[Spoiler Warning] One of the crew members believes that the longer Michael’s alive, the more risk it poses to the entire crew. While others are willing to eat into what little safety margin they have to find a way to save Michael, another crewmember confronts Michael with the grim truth. “Every day you’re with us presents a danger to the crew and to the entire mission,” Michael’s told, as that person gives him a drug to end his own life.
Before the grim reality of their situation becomes apparent, David ropes Michael into the role of his assistant—tabulating some facts and figures for one of his ship-bound experiments.
As they work, David listens to experimental jazz. To Michael, it sounds like a cacophony. But Michael explains that underneath the unexpected sounds of it all, there are logic and rules, too. And while sometimes one or two musicians go off on their own tangents, eventually the whole piece finds … peace.
“Sometimes it can be a little unpleasant,” David admits. “But it’s pure expression. And it usually finds a balance.”
The scene is intended as an imperfect precursor to the chaos beginning to unfold: the arrival of an unexpected passenger, the destruction of a critical piece of machinery, a growing shower of disaster. And it’s designed to offer some hope for what’s to come—maybe even a hint that there’s some underlying, unseen structure that’s a part of it all.
It also offers a bit of foreshadowing to the movie’s own strengths and weaknesses.
Stowaway can feel like a piece of experimental jazz. It’s a little nonsensical at times: If you spend the film asking just how a multi-billion-dollar trip to Mars could miss a stowaway, or just how this antigravitational field works, or any number of ancillary questions, the movie could easily become sidetracked.
And some of the content can be, in David’s words, “unpleasant.” The language here pushes this film into the equivalent of R-rated territory, which is too bad. Because if the screenwriters had throttled back, if they’d kept what you hear as clean as what you see, this Netflix film could’ve been PG.
But despite those problems, there’s music here. We find within its narrative chords structure and drama and even beauty. Stowaway gives us a simple, compelling story featuring good people doing the best they can. They face problems bravely, think creatively and, in the end, seem to care for one another deeply.
Michael wasn’t much of a surprise in this movie. After all, his presence was kinda spoiled by the title. But the quiet inspiration you can find here, in spite of the swear words? That was a nice surprise indeed.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.