Producers: Jonas Katzenstein, Maximilian Leo, Clay Pecorin, Ulrich Schwarz, Nick Spicer and Aram Tertzakian   Director: Joe Penna   Screenplay: Joe Penna and Ryan Morrison   Cast: Anna Kendrick, Toni Collette, Daniel Dae Kim and Shamier Anderson   Distributor: Netflix

Grade: C+

You’ve probably encountered stories about shipwreck survivors who discover that their lifeboat is overloaded and one or more passengers will have to be sacrificed to the sea so that the others can be saved.  That scenario is the premise of Joe Penna’s “Stowaway,” but in this case the ocean is the vastness of space, and the vessel a manned mission to Mars.

The film begins with an exciting, if small-scaled launch sequence that introduces the three astronauts: commander Marina (Toni Collette), biologist David (Daniel Dae Kim) and medical officer Zoe (Anna Kendrick).  They’re the sole occupants of the Hyperion craft on a two-year voyage to Mars, their purpose to study the potential of the Red Planet to support human life.

The careful planning is suddenly upended when a fourth person is discovered on the ship—Michael (Shamier Anderson), an engineer who was injured while doing a final check of the craft prior to launch and trapped aboard.  Found too late for allow the mission to be aborted, and too far from earth for another vessel to be dispatched to return him home, everyone seems resigned to his remaining until calculations reveal a serious obstacle.

The mission has been carefully designed for only three people, and the presence of a fourth will deplete the oxygen supply before reaching Mars.  The astronauts try everything to recalibrate, even ruining David’s plant samples to increase the available oxygen, but the problem seems insuperable.  Marina and David come reluctantly to the conclusion that it might be necessary to induce Michael to take his own life—David even goes so far as to provide him with poison to that end.

But Zoe is horrified by that idea, and suggests a possible solution—a dangerous space walk to a part of the launching pad still tethered to the ship, which might still hold some liquid oxygen.  She and David undertake the walk, but all does not go as expected. 

That episode outside the ship, like the launch sequence with which the film begins, brings some much needed tension to a film that, overall, is a surprisingly talky, introspective affair rather than an exhilarating space adventure.  It does raise interesting moral issues, of course, and even if they have been dealt with before in other venues, they remain intriguing.  Whether their treatment here is sufficiently compelling to compensate for the doldrums is another question.

Nonetheless the cast can’t be faulted; all four of them handle their assignments well, as do the technical team—cinematographer Klemens Becker, production designer Marco Bittner Rosser and editor Ryan Morrison—though the visual effects aren’t exactly cutting-edge and the pacing is sometimes lethargic.  The score by Volker Bertelmann is properly atmospheric.

“Stowaway” is more rumination on difficult choices than space thriller, but it does provide food for thought.