Stowaway (2021)
April 26, 2021 1:39 AM - Subscribe

A stowaway on a mission to Mars sets off a series of unintended consequences. This 2021 Hard Sci-Fi film is a modern retelling of Tom Godwin's 1954 The Cold Equations, a "needlessly cruel" short story that likely "got the equations themselves wrongs" in order to pose a moral dilemma for the characters. In the film, once the ship docks with the Aldrin Mars Cycler (named for its inventor, astronaut Buzz Aldrin) and leaves Earth's gravity well, there are no other voices or characters, enhancing the feeling of isolation ahead of the crew on their two year mission. The very realistic spacecraft spins the habit module on a tether to create artificial gravity and was mocked-up for the film by Scott Manley in Kerbal Space Program, while the claustrophobic interiors look like they were shot on a real space station.
posted by autopilot (35 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The least realistic part of the film was that they were able to print a complex Voronoi arm splint on a 5th gen Makerbot Replicator on the first try.
posted by autopilot at 1:50 AM on April 26 [4 favorites]

Watched this last night and loathed it, finding the plot to be completely ridiculous, while being overly long and tedious.

This wasn't hard scifi at all, was complete bullshit. So many things about it felt so wrong, from the launch, to getting artificial gravity, to having frigging stowaway to how quickly they gave up on being able to generate more oxygen.

The ending was visually beautiful, but that could not save this dumpster fire of a shit pile of a movie.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:17 AM on April 26 [3 favorites]

I was irritated when they didn't stay consistently clipped in during their EVA, and then sure enough bad things happened due to not being clipped in.

And yet you watched the whole thing.

I also ate an entire pizza during the movie. Rough day for making wise choices.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 7:55 AM on April 26 [4 favorites]

I usually stay out of discussions about movies and shows I dislike, but this movie made me so angry I kept shouting "Fuck you!" at the screen, and then afterwards I subjected my (very loving and patient) husband to about an hour of invective about it. And, turns out, I'm still not done.

This movie is "cruelty is logical" porn disguising itself as competency porn.

Now, I've spent a fair amount of my time on this Earth introducing people to ethical thought experiments, like, "What if you had to shoot one person in order to save ten?" And when you introduce someone to that sort of thought experiment, you almost always get a response like, "But why can't I try to save all 11 people?" or "But what if there's another way out of the scenario?" This is because the thought experiment is designed, not to adequately represent an actual scenario that a person would find themselves having to reason their way through, but as a tool to clarify what sorts of things we hold as valuable (not killing vs. protecting the majority). If you're trying to teach people about utilitarianism, the resistance to taking the conceit of the thought experiment as given is a pain. But there's a reason why people always try to find a way out: because we care about others, and caring requires ingenuity and dedication.

This movie gleefully wants us to put ourselves in a utilitarian-thought-experiment puzzle. It wants us to see four people who are all good (as good as humans could be) and compassionate and caring (and never unreasonably selfish! Never flawed to the point of blameworthy!!!), and it was us to accept, "Yep, okay, now they have to murder. That's the scenario." This movie wants us to buy into a worldview where careful, rational calculation is always cold and always wins over compassion, love, and hope.

Fuck that.

Fuck this movie, and fuck its callous disregard for the searing-hot love we have for each other. Fuck this movie for thinking that it is a thoughtful, introspective, compassionate glance into what it takes to make hard decisions.

I couldn't stop thinking about the movie, Apollo 13, as I watched this. In particular, I couldn't stop thinking about the scene where a bunch of engineers on earth are given a box of random knick-knacks and told, "You got to get this piece to fit into this other piece, and here's what you've got to work with." The point of the scene: it looks impossible. It's ridiculous to think that they could succeed. Their task is daunting, and dizzyingly complex. But they fucking do it. They figure it out. But more important, I think, than the fact that they are actually successful is this: THEY TRIED. They put the whole of themselves into the task of figuring it out, and they did. not. fucking. give. up. It was entirely possible, in real life just as in the movie version, that they would fail, that they wouldn't find a way to fix the broken machine. But there wasn't a single avenue they wouldn't test out; there was not a single point at which they would have stopped trying, no matter how challenging or wild their attempts may have to come. Know why? Because there were lives at stake, and that matters. Because people matter. Because engineering is a tool through which we wrestle the void of space into keeping our loved ones alive.

This movie pretends to do the same. But it's not really interested in the effort that goes into trying. We're told: there's no way to fix the thing that broke. We're told: all the best engineers back on Earth have been trying to figure out a way to fix it. The movie wants us to assume that the "Fit this into that, and all you've got to use is this stuff" scene has actually happened. But the movie doesn't actually give us any of it. The movie isn't actually interested in the trial-and-error process of trying to keep people alive. It doesn't take seriously that the effort of trying matters.

There are two different "engineering" problems that this movie completely oversteps. First, there's the literal engineering problem: there's not enough oxygen for four people, because $thing broke. Second, there's the social / psychological engineering problem: if there's not enough oxygen for four people, then someone has to die.

The movie completely ignores the first problem. It all takes place off screen. All we get from it is "Jim," back on Earth, who we can't even actually hear, telling the commander that there's no technical fix to their problem. The movie makers clearly wanted us to see this engineering problem as mere hand-wavey sci-fi boilerplate. The movie expects us to accept, "There's no way to fix $thing" the same way we accept, "The warp core is breached and neutrinos are leaking out!" or whatever on Star Trek. The movie doesn't realize that an engineering issue of this sort is also a key human/emotional/love-focused issue. Again: the movie completely fails to appreciate that the effort, the attempt, the work of trying matters. The movie wants us to just nod and say, "Oh, yes, okay. I accept your fictional premise: $thing broke, out of luck." But there's a reason why the characters keep going, "But isn't there any way we can fix $thing!?" Because that's the human response. That's what we do: we try.

The second "engineering" problem is so ridiculously mishandled, it makes me want to scream. You've got a crew of four people. Just four! And you think the way the commander is going to manage problems is to pull one aside and say, "Don't tell the others, but we don't have enough oxygen"? And then, later, pull two aside and say, "Okay, here's the deal: we have to kill the fourth guy." Seriously? Is that really how we solve problems, in deep space? Is that really the best sort of process for making literal life and death decisions, when you've got such a small crew and you're expecting to be completely alone together for the next two years? It's the most immature, dysfunctional management approach I think I can imagine. What absolute bullshit. Give me four people--four adults--sitting at a table together and going through all the facts together. Give me highly-trained professionals who care about each other, who respect each other, and who are willing to work together for the sake of their own humanity and each other's.

Think about how, in this movie, there's absolutely no discussion of other problems that would have to be resolved if a spaceship meant for two people and stocked for three suddenly found itself housing four. Not a single word is said about food or food rationing. I'm totally happy with a movie that wants to have that not be an issue--it's easy! All you have to do is have one character say, "It's a good thing we're totally overstocked and could actually survive for ten years, food-wise," or whatever. But the movie doesn't give us that. Does Michael have a toothbrush? What about his clothing--will there be enough to share? We get one line about water consumption--what about additional laundry needs, etc. etc. etc? There are so many incredibly important logistics issues that a scenario like this would entail, and the movie doesn't care about them, not at all.

The movie wants us to hand-wave away all those logistic issues. They show Michael sleeping on a cot. They show him wearing a shirt that doesn't fit him quite right. But we shouldn't hand-wave away those issues. Why? Because those are the issues relevant to figuring out how Michael can live. By ignoring them all, by completely dismissing any logistical concerns about Michael being on the ship (except for the one that means he must be killed, obvs), the movie indicates that it doesn't actually take seriously the prospect of everyone surviving.

This isn't a story about humans, who love and care and who shape the world to keep each other alive, trying to survive together. This is a story that doesn't think effort of that sort matters.

I know it's ironic, because the whole point of the final act is about the value of trying. But it's unearned. It's presented as a choice that goes against sound technical advice. It's presented as a distinctly individual choice, motivated by unreasonable goody-two-shoes wishful thinking. Bullshit; I call bullshit. Imagine Apollo 13, but with the decision-making process presented in this movie.

We live in such a cruel world. Such a cruel, cruel world. This movie hits me hard, I think, because of how tired I am of the cruelty all around us. I reject stories, like this one, that function to reinforce that cruelty, to idolize it as a necessity, that conflate giving up with being reasonable. I have no patience for stories that hand-wave away the soul-deep human drive to try, out of love and compassion. We deserve better from our storytellers.
posted by meese at 9:20 AM on April 26 [33 favorites]


What the hell was up with the "let's stop for a sec so a non-Black character can explain the point of jazz to a Black character who apparently has never heard of it before" scene?

Like--what the hell?

And, you know, there's something very distinctly awful, at this particular moment in history, about seeing three non-Black people (two of whom are white women) talking about how the Black character is going to have to be sacrificed so that they can live.
posted by meese at 9:24 AM on April 26 [13 favorites]

And yet you watched the whole thing.

Not only that, I'm watched it again this morning, because I had such a strong reaction to it and want to give the film a second go to see if those thoughts and feelings remain.

They have.

The central premise is great, i.e. how will people handle suddenly limited resources on a long space flight. A major problem is that narrative used to explore this is completely and utterly ridiculous. You don't get stowaways on a spaceship. You definitely don't get stowaways locked behind paneling, that inadvertently destroy the one and only life support system. Which is also about the size of a pizza box, so there's no reason not to have at least 10 backups on a ship that size.

The film would have been far better if they had started off with the four astronauts (yeah I'm counting Michael as fourth) and simply had something similar to the Apollo 13 explosion occur. You could even throw in a subplot about how the explosion occurred, which with Apollo 13 was due to minor human error and design defects going back almost 5 years before that flight launched.

So we take away the hard sci-fi label and view it as an emotional journey with the characters and it's still lackluster. Anna Kendrick as Zoe is good, but predictable as the star, while everyone else comes off as formulaic despite the story trying to give them some depth.

I liked that the captain and Daniel were ok with having Michael die or be killed, it's different from the usual "we must work ourselves to the bone to save everyone," which something that I think any real space agency would do. Which is perhaps why there are no real space agencies in this.

But I didn't get any real motivation or deep thought about why the captain and Daniel came to their conclusions so seemingly easy and quickly.

Sure, I can imagine a lot of reasons why those characters quickly came to that decision to kill or let Michael die. But there isn't much in the actual film to indicate why those specific characters came to that decision.

Long story short: the incredibly implausible plot that forced the situation was too ridiculous to take enjoy the rest of the film. The characters themselves felt forced and formulaic, despite various attempts to humanize them. I would have liked to have some more character development and interaction, while having the technical aspects more in the background.

Counter point: my wife, who also watched it both times, loved it, saying it was wonderfully subtle. She usually doesn't enjoy space type films, while I usually do.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:25 AM on April 26 [2 favorites]

Also, is there any technical reason they could wait out the storm and go back and get the oxygen?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:36 AM on April 26

The film would have been far better if they had started off with the four astronauts (yeah I'm counting Michael as fourth) and simply had something similar to the Apollo 13 explosion occur.

I have not watched this yet, but I don't think this would get at the same questions raised by the film as it stands. You need to have one person who doesn't "deserve" to be there, so that can factor into the calculus. Otherwise you're just drawing straws.
posted by schoolgirl report at 9:43 AM on April 26 [1 favorite]

That one I can answer: the pipe fitting was a kludge, and leaked. They didn't know if all the oxygen would be gone by the time the storm was over and they went back up.

BUT I can't explain why I enjoyed the movie and almost nobody else did, or why I was reduced to a sobbing mess at the end while everyone else was just annoyed. I read the goddam Cold Equations when I was 12, and have been arguing with it ever since, so it's not like this is a new story to me. It just worked for me, that's all, even with the plot holes that I saw.
posted by Mogur at 9:44 AM on April 26 [2 favorites]

I watched half of this the other day, up to where David's algae died completely.

I'm not going to talk about the plot much. I think considering Michael as one of the crew is wrong. He was not supposed to be there and the commander, Zoe, and David were the crew, the ones going to Mars. While I agree with the idea that the the crew and NASA/Hyperion/whatever Mission Control was supposed to be should have been shown looking for solutions more than simply telling us that none were to be found, I do agree with the depiction of Michael being the outsider. These three had been training for how long together, their personalities were synced thanks to testing and all. And then some guy appears. It's natural he would be The Outsider.

More than anything, the thing that took me out of the movie and just made it a slog was the fact the crew had no apparent life aboard ship besides eating silently with each other. They didn't have any movies or anything like that. We had one example of jazz, but was there anything else? The ambiance didn't work for me and I never got into their journey.
posted by Fukiyama at 10:14 AM on April 26

The film would have been far better if they had started off with the four astronauts (yeah I'm counting Michael as fourth) and simply had something similar to the Apollo 13 explosion occur. You could even throw in a subplot about how the explosion occurred, which with Apollo 13 was due to minor human error and design defects going back almost 5 years before that flight launched.

Ok, this is good.

That idea right there solves so many problems because you could handwave away anything with the explosion (There were 100 CDRA backups, but the explosion did them all in due to ash that got sucked into the ventilation systems because it was all made by the lowest bidder) . All of a sudden you could treat this like technobabble Star Trek problems, and by doing so, remove the cruelty and give it heart.

4 people, stuck in space, without enough resources. How do they survive? How do they handle it mentally? Who is worth "saving" - the married botanist, the engineer raising his sister, the promising young doctor, the captain on her final mission (that she was no doubt brought out of retirement for)? It's not the Cold Equation, because they're all supposed to be there, so there's no easy cop out of ditching the people who threw off the weight calculations. It's just a story of 4 people who can't all survive.

And maybe there's still a story line about lethal syringe hanging out on a table, but with the theme of self-sacrifice instead of sociopathically logic-ing others into using it? And then sure, there's a perilous journey to the fuel tank, blah blah blah. But this time it's people we care about?

That's good. I would go see Stowaway: The Brandon Blatcher Cut
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 10:56 AM on April 26

These three had been training for how long together, their personalities were synced thanks to testing and all. And then some guy appears. It's natural he would be The Outsider.

That's reallllly interesting, because despite Michael as a stowaway, I didn't see him as other per. Not saying your or anyone is wrong viewing him that way*, but it's just something that never really occurred to me. You save all four people, not matter how they got there.

That said, Michael being an other who doesn't mesh well with the others could have been interesting. But I understand the creators avoiding that because the actor was black and that would have been problematic, unless handled extremely well.

* Uncomfortable with "the other" being the Black guy, but don't feel that the film was being that racist about it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:05 AM on April 26

I went into the film expecting to dislike it since it was based on The Cold Equations, and much like the Trolley Problem, find those sorts of reductionist questions to be uninteresting. The original Cold Equations started with the end goal of "murder is ok in this case" and then the author and editor worked backwards to try to close out all of the ways the pilot could have saved the stowaway. It's not a good story, but shows up far too often in discussion of Hard Sci-Fi.

Scott Manley's discussion on the cycler space craft is what convinced me to watch it, and I'm in total agreement with all of your points about the disappointing plot and problematic elements, meese and Brandon Blatcher. It could have been an amazing competence-porn film, but was betrayed by its devotion to the source material. The interior sets feel so authentic that I really want to see a Apollo 13 or The Martian version of this film in this world, where the astronauts work together with the ground crew to solve problems. Until we get that movie, have you seen "Europa Report", another mid-budget space movie with some hard sci-fi elements that has a crew working together for science at the cost of their own sacrifice?

What parts of the physics struck you as inaccurate, Brandon Blatcher? The launch seemed mostly reasonable, other than an extra 100kg causing any noticeable deviation from the target trajectory, the gravity is explained by the spinning the habitat on the long tether (a 100m tether needs ~3rpm to make 1g; we could estimate the angular rotation rate from the time to pass the cupola window), the astronauts pre-breathing prior to EVA is a subtle bit of realism, the skew-flip at the center of the tether had some beautiful zero-g, and so on.
posted by autopilot at 11:52 AM on April 26 [2 favorites]

Sounds like this would be just a fun hate watch with a crew of sarcastic sciency folk, bah covid-plague.

Did Kendrick at least get in a bit of acapella?
posted by sammyo at 12:22 PM on April 26

The cast was good. The production design was nice. I do wonder about the incompetence of the people running these space flights if they didn't make sure to account for everyone in the ground crew before takeoff. That's just sloppy.

Mostly, though, I hated the ending. I understand it from the perspective that it was in line with Zoe's character. But I am tired of the whole "oh, well, she's a single, childless woman so it's a noble sacrifice but she has no one so it's OK!" thing. Did Zoe not have friends? Family?

Maybe I'm just taking this personally because while I'm in a relationship, I am unmarried and childless (both by choice) and I have definitely been treated like my free time should only be used to serve others (at jobs or whatever). But I have a full life! I have family, friends, a partner. I am a part of a community. I wish more media reflected women like that.

I guess I wanted it to feel like Zoe was giving up something (other than her life) but she was willing to do that. Instead, I feel like the movie just treated her as expendable and we were supposed to find that touching.

(I'm also looking at you, Avengers: Endgame.)
posted by edencosmic at 1:55 PM on April 26 [6 favorites]

Everyone here's criticism of this movie is fully justified.

The organization and science is insultingly stupid and none of the numbers makes a lick of sense. The conflict is entirely artificial. A 5 month mission allowance reduced to 20 days very shortly after launch - killing one of the crew isn't enough to save them anyway.

As mentioned, the script makes a point to point out "personal weight allowance" and an extra 80-90kg would be immediately noticed during the burn. The PR of the situation is dumb as well, in the real world they'd scrub the mission, return the crew if not the craft to earth, and aim for the next launch window. Or halt the entire program to re-evaluate just how someone could end up passing out inside the craft before it was launched.

Algae doesn't work like that at all. The script also makes a point of limited energy (lights dimmed during the night cycle) - photosynthesis fixes carbon for a reason, not as altruism to us non-autotrophs. Once the light goes away, the photosynthesizer burns oxygen to produce energy (and CO2). As a living organism, they don't have to use up "the other half" of the stocks. Just give them more nutrients and more living space! Getting rid of the microgreens also makes no sense. Jury rigging aeroponics/ hydroponics, rerouting all available power to producing photons, and growing as much as possible could be a partial solution.

It would have been more entertaining if they spent half the movie coming up with weird solutions like turning the crew's solid waste into growth media for the microgreens and algae by repurposing the fungal experiments and playing around with repurposing every last watt of available energy into producing photons. The broken CO2 scrubbers or whatever are broken and not using electricity. Or turn down the air conditioning - saves electricity and probably increases the rate of photosynthesis as well.

Now I'm wondering what the relative energy efficiencies are between (presumably) electro-chemical scrubbers and using photosynthesis.

(Also the design of the craft is dumb. For something that shape, you'd build it in space and shuttle the crew up there, then burn for Mars - not burn to Mars straight from a dirt-side launch. The simplest solution would be to dock another vehicle before the burn to Mars, retrieve the "stowaway" and resupply. You'd probably still make the window! Or just scrub the mission and figure out how to return the crew and shuttle to Earth. They must have had a plan to land on Mars, right? Use that to return to Earth.)

Ok, made it to the end. Her suit life support will crap out far before she dies of radiation.

The writers should have been the ones to sacrifice themselves.
posted by porpoise at 2:29 PM on April 26 [4 favorites]

They must have had a plan to land on Mars, right? Use that to return to Earth.)

There was a colony on Mars I think.
posted by Fukiyama at 3:08 PM on April 26

I liked the design of the environment and how they said "It's spinning" so they didn't have to try to harness people and simulate weightlessness. And loads of tethers, which makes the ghost of Bob Forward happy.

But they were so excited to see if they could remake The Cold Equations with double the number of characters and stretched out to two hours, they didn't think about whether they should. "Let's have two stages separate before hitting Max Q" should have been my clue that this wasn't going to be great.

At least it demonstrated that Netflix's speed control for watching works OK.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 3:13 PM on April 26 [1 favorite]

I went into the film expecting to dislike it since it was based on The Cold Equations, and much like the Trolley Problem, find those sorts of reductionist questions to be uninteresting. The original Cold Equations started with the end goal of "murder is ok in this case" and then the author and editor worked backwards to try to close out all of the ways the pilot could have saved the stowaway. It's not a good story, but shows up far too often in discussion of Hard Sci-Fi.

Super agree. I have never really liked that story. Not least because designing a ship like that with not even one single person's worth of margin for error is... a bad goddamn idea? Not how engineering generally works?
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:16 PM on April 26 [2 favorites]

I got the impression that Hyperion was a for-profit company and so everyone kind of knew deep down that the people back home weren't really working on a solution to save anyone, only to save what they could of the project. This was not clearly defined but there are a few lines about the cheapness of the vehicle that I felt were hinting at this. I kept expecting them to reveal that as a kicker at some point and when they didn't it really just wiped away any goodwill I had for the filmmakers.

It's a hollow story that went nowhere.
posted by M Edward at 6:23 PM on April 26

Away, with ALL it's faults, was so much better.
posted by M Edward at 6:24 PM on April 26

What parts of the physics struck you as inaccurate, Brandon Blatcher? The launch seemed mostly reasonable, other than an extra 100kg causing any noticeable deviation from the target trajectory...

Admittedly, my opinion of the movie started going downhill in the opening scenes of the launch.

It was well shot, and Kendrick's expressions were great, but the shaking was entirely too pronounced to someone who's watched several videos of Space Shuttle launches from the cockpit. Then the timing was terrible for first stage, then Max Q (which occurs around 11-15 km during launch, and then almost immediately second stage separation. So much for hard scifi at that point, if they're already defaulting to being visually compelling over reality.

Which is fine, most of the time! Not everything has to match reality in scifi. I loved the movie Gravity, even as I noticed various completely impossible things, like how easy it was to get form the ISS to the Chinese space station. Not a big deal, they had enough other interesting and/or emotional things going on to keep interest.

You asked about Europa Report and I had a similarly violent reaction to that film when it came out years ago. So I rewatched it this afternoon and yeah, no. NO. It started off pretty silly, with the idea that a voyage to Europa would come before a trip to Mars and it generally went downhill from there, what with sending six astronauts to Jupiter on the very first trip. With the found footage format and 9 characters to keep track, it was just a mess that failed to entertain on scientific or emotional level.

I thoroughly enjoy 2010, schmaltzy thought it may, it just has a good mix of science and heart. Sunshine is another favorite and one I really into at first, but it devolved into a fist fight and lost a lot of points for that. The Martian was fantastic, of course. Gattaca was very good because it had a very grounded story. District 9 was another I loathed, though it had a lot of promise.

Anna Kendrick, who played Zoe, was an executive producer for the movie, so that probably explains having that character as the hero. I have no idea why the creators wanted to seemingly do something hard scifi-ish, as that's incredibly difficult to do and probably not worth it.

I got the impression that Hyperion was a for-profit company ...

My wife had the same theory! I didn't see it, but it does the story a little more plausible. But not really. I'm just glad no real life space agency was named, 'cause leaving a ground support person in panel is, that's makes no fucking sense.

I wanted to take part in the illusion, enjoy an interesting scifi story, but that plot point is like a "fuck you" from the creators. "Duuuuude, we don't have even to sell it, just toss somebody behind the panel, it'll be fine. Let's move on to real meat of the story!"
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:09 PM on April 26

This is the second sci-fi film I’ve seen this year* in which a single, childless woman sacrifices her life so that someone with a romantic partner and/or kids can live. Fuck that noise, man.

Anyway, I’m so delighted to find my fellow curmudgeons. Apparently, out in the world, some people really liked this movie? I very much did not. Dull, inert, and overlong at two hours, I completely lost interest in these characters around thirty minutes in and felt no emotional engagement whatsoever with their fates.

However, I always enjoy an opportunity to hear people say the term ‘coronal mass ejection’ aloud, because I’m ten years old and mentally rhyme it with Judd Nelson saying ‘hot beef injection’ in The Breakfast Club.

* SPOILERS: Underwater (2020)
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 8:04 PM on April 26 [4 favorites]

I went into the film expecting to dislike it since it was based on The Cold Equations

The people who made the film claim they had never heard of "The Cold Equations" prior to making the film.

I don't know if at this point it's more embarrassing for them if they're lying or it's more embarrassing if they're telling the truth.
posted by Justinian at 12:51 AM on April 27 [14 favorites]

How could they pitch the film without every nerd in a 1AU radius asking "oh, you mean like in The Cold Equations?"?

Campbell wrote letters explaining the origin of the story that explicitly state that the ending was the goal and that it took multiple edits to convince Godwin:
There is no viewpoint that has zero validity—though some have very small validity, or very limited application. [...] That [story], you see, is simply a gimmick on the proposition “Human sacrifice is absolutely unacceptable.” So we deliberately, knowingly and painfully sacrifice a young, pretty girl…and make the reader accept that it is valid!
Somehow that explanation makes it worse....

The ship wasn't doing a Mars-direct burn, porpoise -- they rendezvoused with an Aldrin Cycler, a reusable spacecraft that is continuously in an highly elliptical orbit that intersects both Earth and Mars' orbits. The craft on the ground needs to launch in a certain window to intersect with the orbit of the cycler. This smaller craft has a reasonable delta-V requirement since it doesn't have to carry the mass of living quarters, radiation shielding, etc. That's why there were all the crew patches and autographs from the previous trips on the cycler. However, the cycler has almost no propellant - once it is established in its orbit it requires almost no further delta-V -- so it can't stop to return to Earth and their transfer ship doesn't have the delta-V to return either.

Although now that I think about it, where was the stowaway hiding? Ignoring the inexplicable part of him being missed during the launch (don't they have check-in/check-out or numbered bunny suits like the SpaceX Ninjas?) or the improbability of him somehow being trapped behind a screwed-in panel, it doesn't seem like the cycler would depend on O2/CO2 equipment on the transfer ship since the whole idea is that the heavy stuff for the long trip is permanent equipment on the cycler. So how is there any critical component to be damaged when he fell?

(Sorry to subject you to Europa Report again, Brandon Blatcher... it seemed ok when it came out, but I haven't seen in seven years, so my memory must have filled in around the rough parts)
posted by autopilot at 2:14 AM on April 27

The door FALLING...wheeeee... is what bothered me the most visually.

I definitely think Hyperion is for-profit and that the movie, if we're being generous, could be a condemnation of the corporatization of Very Human Things. If we're not being generous, it's a weird racist anti-feminist bad-science attempt to do the opposite of what Gravity did - Gravity was LOOK VASTNESS OF SPACE and this was LOOK YOU'RE FREAKING TRAPPED.
posted by wellred at 6:01 AM on April 27 [2 favorites]

I overall liked this movie, something about the way it communicated the distance from earth by keeping all communications one-sided, something about the interactions of the crew, worked for me.

However, if you want a very easy solution: The cycler has to be able to withdraw the cable and cancel the spin at the end of the trip; we see it extend the cable at the beginning, and it will do so repeatedly over its lifetime. So do that as soon as there's a problem, making it relatively easy and safe to access the rocket's spare oxygen tank.

That didn't ruin it for me, because there will absolutely be unavoidable situations like this if space exploration ever happens in earnest. Much as there have been with polar exploration, or cave diving, or.. So I don't mind there being one movie to go with the one short story that tackles the subject.
posted by joeyh at 7:07 AM on April 27 [1 favorite]

I kept expecting them to reveal that as a kicker at some point

The fact that we never really heard the Earth side of the radio contacts had me thinking there was some Chekov's gun going on with them not actually being real or in space or running out of air. It was just weird.

an extra 80-90kg would be immediately noticed during the burn.
This is another place where they squandered plot points! The extra weight was noticed when the commander had her hand on the abort switch, but ground control said the fuel was ok. This was kind of interesting because it's like CSI or a medical show... you know there's gonna be a dead body or someone collapsing in the cold open, so this was like a little hint to build anticipation that things are going wrong. But then nothing actually happens! They just mention the engine is underperfoming and don't worry about it ever again.

posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 8:17 AM on April 27

I too was waiting for the reveal that Hyperion wasn't really working their hardest to find a solution. Imagine if a lot of their "No, that seemingly plausible solution won't actually work" could be motivated by liability concerns rather than actual risk management. But... Nothing of substance happened, or was revealed, on that front.
posted by meese at 9:13 AM on April 27 [1 favorite]

How could they pitch the film without every nerd in a 1AU radius asking "oh, you mean like in The Cold Equations?"?

The pitches were probably to studio execs. They don't read! They have people for that!
posted by Justinian at 1:54 PM on April 27

To be fair, even studio executives rarely have an AU radius free of nerds around them....

We get one line about water consumption--what about additional laundry needs, etc. etc. etc?

I saw a talk by a textile expert who is working on designs for clothing for Mars missions, and they have ideas for fabrics that can go without regular washing for months at least without getting too gross.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:56 PM on April 27

The cinematography was very good, as was the choice the only show one side of the conversation with mission control. That last part was disorienting and isolating, probably a touch too forced in my opinion, but overall it worked.

It was just weird how the only person in mission control was Jim. Like, don't they have a staff on rotating shifts?

The music also did a good job creating an eerie and distant atmosphere, tinged at time with the beauty and wonder of it all

For those who say that having Michael be an outsider was important, ok, but it's a shame the creators didn't borrow from the actual Apollo 13 mission. There was a crew swap two days before launch, out of fear of one of the astronauts being exposed to measles, so they pulled the guy from a backup crew. That was played for tension in the Apollo 13 movie, though it wasn't an issue in real life. But it's an idea that could have been used in Stowaway.

In the future, I think the best way to portray the who lives and who dies in space disaster situation is to have the crew try everything they can to save everyone, but repeatedly have the ideas fail, until the crew is pushed to the limit of surviving with X amount of people. Then have one final system fail where the only slim chance is getting rid of someone.

Fun fact: Women generally need less calories and oxygen in space. Hello different narrative possibilities! 'Cause based on some comments here, I'd really love to see a single, childless woman character be firmly like "fuck you, my life is just as important as anyone else's". Considering that women are the only ones that can bring, you know, create life, you'd think that would be a big argument for keeping them alive in that situation. Or not! There's a lot variables about who to save and why and it would be interesting if one of those movies dived deep into the various reasons.

Fun fact #2: Moving around consumes more oxygen, so I kept screaming "stay still" at the screen during Stowaway.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:04 AM on April 28 [1 favorite]

For those who say that having Michael be an outsider was important, ok, but it's a shame the creators didn't borrow from the actual Apollo 13 mission.

For this type of movie, no, I don't think anyone is saying that it's important. As you show, Apollo 13 did quite well with Jack Swigert. For my part, I was just pointing out that Michael is not one of the crew and what is important is recognizing his proper place as an interloper who isn't supposed to be there and how that affects attitudes vs. thinking that they will just accept him as "one of us."
posted by Fukiyama at 7:51 AM on April 28

Slate has a decent piece about this and the problems that fandom has honed in on both here and with the original Cold Equations. The last line summarizes it pretty well:
The equations remain as cold as they were in 1954, and in both stories they add up to a young woman perishing in the void.
You can't plead necessity when you're the one setting the parameters. In both cases she dies not because nature is immutable but because the author/filmmaker wanted her to die.

That isn't to say one can't make or that there is no place for stories about hard truths or inescapable fate. But these particular instances of it sure seem to relish the opportunity. It's reminiscent of a quote from the great philosopher GLaDOS: We do what we must because we can.

For my part, I think Spinrad rather clearly put paid almost exactly 50 years ago to the idea that there is no moral component to the fictional universe an author sets up. So maybe if the universe you set up is basically an excuse to toss young women out airlocks you could do me a favor and take another pass at the ol' script.
posted by Justinian at 2:42 AM on April 29 [3 favorites]

This film had lazy writing. How did Michael get trapped behind the panel? Who cares? Let the audience make up an explanation. He tripped and fell in then his blind coworker reattached the panel, which conveniently had the tolerances to fit his body without the coworker having to sit on the panel to get it screwed in. Why does the engineering for SPACE FUCKING TRAVEL have like 0 redundancies and also use a rocket engine designed such that it ends up with so much extra oxygen it will sustain a 4th person all the way to Mars? Shut up, nerd. What's this Jim guy saying? Not important, just pretend Toni Collette is talking to one of the parents from Peanuts.

What if, in 2021, we make the only Black character the stowaway and then have no discussion of drawing straws or some such, instead having everyone (even him, apparently) agree that obviously he's the one who's got to die. There were some opportunities for an interesting element to a space travel/survival film to happen but this movie managed to dodge every single one. Impressively bad.
posted by axiom at 6:14 PM on May 1

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