For a film set in space, Netflix’s Stowaway is surprisingly grounded. Bad puns aside, the new sci-fi drama starring Anna Kendrick, Tony Collette, and Daniel Dae Kim is a tense, nuts-and-bolts survival thriller set aboard a spacecraft, where instead of facing down aliens, asteroids, or other fantastical fights, the trio has to contend with a series of simple technical failings that leave them with nothing but bad choices to complete their mission. And not nearly enough oxygen.
It all starts with the accidental stowaway, Michael (Shamier Anderson), a launch crew member who winds up passed out in the ship’s machinery and wakes up on an unplanned trip to Mars. Michael didn’t want to be there (and one of the film’s most fascinating moments comes when he has a “Holy shit, I’m in space, I do not want to be in space” panic attack). He’s not a villain and he doesn’t mean to derail the mission, but he does. Things go from bad to worse in a hurry, culminating in a devastating ending that leaves some of the film’s biggest questions unanswered.
We spoke with Stowaway director and co-writer Joe Penna and got some hints at those answers, but before we dive into his spoiler-filled thoughts on that ending, here’s a recap of what happens in the film. (If you don’t need a recap, you can easily skip to what Penna said by scrolling down to the block quotes below.)
[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Stowaway.]
Stowaway follows a small crew of space travelers on a two-year mission to Mars that immediately goes off the rails when they discover Michael is aboard the ship. It’s never fully explained how he was left there during takeoff (though, for what it’s worth, the filmmakers were told by NASA is that it’s absolutely possible), but what quickly becomes clear is that his presence on the ship caused irreparable damage that could cost all their lives. Specifically, the CDRA device — the onboard equipment that scrubs Carbon Dioxide from the ship’s atmosphere, allowing sufficient Oxygen for the crew — doesn’t work. Without it, they’ll all die.
Fortunately, the scientists get up to some quick thinking and improvise some stop-gap solutions. First, they use their emergency lithium hydroxide canisters to sub in for the broken equipment, but that will only provide enough oxygen for two of them, and there are four people on board. The ship’s biologist David (Kim) uses the algae he’d planned to cultivate on Mars as a means to scrub more Carbon Dioxide, but half the batch fails. Now there’s enough oxygen for three of them, but still, not all four.
Which leaves them out of options – except one. Someone has to die. And everyone on the ship has a vital role to play — except Michael. David and the mission Commander, Marina Barnett (Collette), reluctantly deduce that Michael has to die in order for them all to survive, but the ship’s resident doctor and optimist, Zoe (Kendrick), insists there has to be another way.
David attempts to convince Michael to kill himself, stealing medicine from Zoe’s supply that will allow Michael to die painlessly, but Zoe intervenes just in time to stop it. David’s argument is that given the impossibly finite resources they have left to survive a mission that’s already seen so much failure, Michael has to stop taking up the ship’s oxygen as soon as possible, leaving them as much margin of error as possible. Zoe insists that they should use every second of extra oxygen they have to try to save Michael’s life, and presented with two very bad options, Marina sides with Zoe.
Ultimately, Zoe’s solution is to take a risky spacewalk, climbing up hundreds of meters up a tether in order to fill canisters with the liquid oxygen that was used for takeoff. David agrees, to everyone’s surprise, revealing that the second half of his algae died, and there’s now only enough oxygen for two of them to survive. Together, Zoe and David enact a pulse-pounding rescue mission, but while they’re in the middle of filling the canisters, Barnett reports an incoming solar flare, which sends them both rushing back to the ship in order to avoid death by radiation.
Zoe manages to fill one of the oxygen canisters but is forced to leave the other behind in the middle of filling it. The one canister would be enough, but in her hurry to return to the ship, she accelerates too quickly and loses her grip, watching in horror as the canister spirals out into the void of space. Both Zoe and David make it back to the ship in time, but they’re left with the same predicament — there are four people on board and there’s only enough oxygen for two. And because they had to abandon the second canister mid-way through, their last-chance oxygen resource is depleting by the second. With the solar flare set to last for hours, one of them has to sacrifice themselves and go out into the deadly radiation to save the rest.
Michael volunteers, but he doesn’t have the training, and if he fails, another person would die with him. Barnett, who was injured when they first discovered Michael, is unable to do it herself, leaving just Zoe and David. Zoe decides she will sacrifice herself, climbs up and retrieves the second canister, lowering the life-saving supply down to the remaining trio inside the ship, and closing the hatch behind it. As the film ends, she sits down on the outside of the ship and we see the radiation immediately affecting her. As her breath gets weaker, she stares off into space while her voiceover says she joined the mission to give her life “meaning.” The camera reveals she’s staring at Mars, glowing red in the distance. The end.
Pretty bleak stuff, and we don’t even know for sure if they make it to Mars! So was Zoe’s sacrifice worth it in the end? Well, when we spoke with Penna, we asked him outright if they complete their mission to Mars, and though he didn’t directly confirm it, he had a lot to say about hope – and how much effort they put into making sure the film ends with that hope.
“Where to end my films is always the biggest question. There is always a month-long discussion about which frame exactly, especially with Arctic, we’re going to cut on. So with this one, especially the voiceover at the end and everything that happens right then and there, that was such a difficult thing to write. And that was something that we wrote after everything was done, and that we knew we wanted to write after everything was done, because we wanted to watch the film until that final little voiceover. Because we wanted it to be as hopeful as that bleak-ass ending can be. We wanted it to be as hopeful as possible.”
As a reminder, here’s what that voiceover says:
“I applied to the H.A.R.P. program because I thought it would be a funny story to get 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.”
So, since the filmmakers put so much care into writing that specifically to instill hope into their “bleak-ass” ending, and considering the juxtaposition of that quote and the shot of Mars glowing in the distance, the implication certainly seems to be that their survival and successful mission to Mars would be the thing that gives her sacrifice “meaning.”
But maybe I’m just an optimist, because Penna also says he intentionally left it open for audiences to decide. The filmmaker continued:
“I wanted it to be open. Some people, if you’re more of a pessimist, you’ll probably see it as ‘Ok, well they never make it to Mars’ and some people who are more of the optimists will probably see it as ‘Oh yeah, they’ll find a way to fix Anna by the end of it.’”
Ok, well I’m not that much of an optimist. I’m not entirely sure how serious Penna was about that last bit, but there’s no implication whatsoever in the film that Kendrick’s character could survive her exposure to the radiation; especially given the rate her health is seen deteriorating in a storm that will last for hours, the fact that she’s the ship’s only medical doctor, and that we’ve seen no indication they have the resources to treat radical radiation poisoning on their ship.
But hey, it’s sci-fi and we all know the unwritten rule of movies and TV is that unless someone dies on-screen, you never know if they’re dead for real. And if you happen to be that much of an optimist, please, teach me your ways.
But I do believe the film is suggesting the mission to Mars is successful… in the sense that at least one of the surviving crewmembers makes it to their destination. Because Penna also provided one more fascinating clue to what might have happened next. Turns out, Stowaway was originally the first film in a trilogy. The second film was meant to be Arctic. And Arctic was originally going to be set on… you guessed it, Mars.
“That’s part of the little trilogy that my co-writer [Ryan Morrison] and I worked on. The first one that we wrote was this, Stowaway, and the second one was Arctic, which was initially set on Mars, so that was part of more of a trilogy. And the third one was called Grounded, which was people trying to get to Mars, but there’s stuff getting in the way. For those three films, we wanted the same idea, the fact that there isn’t a Machiavellian moustache-twirling bad guy, it’s just a bad situation.”
A bad situation, indeed. If you haven’t seen Arctic, that film stars Mads Mikkelsen as a lone survivor stranded in the Arctic Circle until his rescue helicopter crashes, killing the pilot, and leaving him with an injured passenger as his only company.
Now, without further insight, we don’t know how much Arctic was retooled once the trilogy concept was abandoned. But knowing that it was originally conceived to take place on Mars as a follow-up to Stowaway makes a compelling case for the fact that their mission, in some sense, does wind up being successful. Even if it sounds like they sure were gonna have a rough time when they got there.
So, what do you think? Was Zoe’s sacrifice worth it? Did they make it to Mars in the end? Sound off with your thoughts and theories in the comments, and for more on Stowaway, stay tuned for our full interview with Penna.
Stowaway is streaming now on Netflix.
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