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It’s something of a quiet week, with little in the run up to this year’s (belated) Academy Awards. On NOW, one of the few films to play in US theatres in the height of the pandemic, Unhinged, makes its streaming debut, while Netflix continues to make good on its promise of a new original every week with the sci-fi survival thriller Stowaway.
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Stowaway - Netflix
Joe Penna’s Stowaway is a surprisingly engaging chamber piece, capitalising on its limited space and persons. Having recently directed the Mads Mikkelsen-starring Arctic — made with just a cast of three — Penna is no stranger to taut, isolated survival movies. Stowaway works with a bigger cast — four! — and rather deviously turns that into the problem, as a three-person crew on a mission to Mars find their lives at risk because of an unplanned passenger on board.
You’d happily watch Daniel Dae Kim and Shamier Anderson cultivate algae together. Of course things can’t work out that way, as Michael’s presence on the ship endangers everyone on board after a life support module takes some damage, and pragmatism indicates that one of the astronauts has to go, introducing the classic trolley problem into the claustrophobic environment of space. That ticking clock narrative is familiar for films of this kind, but It’s surprising how well it works as a straightforward survival story. Penna and co-writer Ryan Morrison maintain a patient and even-keeled pace on its way to a painful impasse, each new attempt at a solution becoming more desperate — and in turn more thrilling.
As the crew of astronauts, Anna Kendrick, Daniel Dae Kim and Toni Collette are magnetic, and have a great rapport with each other. Then the film’s eponymous stowaway Michael (Anderson) appears, and the cleverness of the film’s casting reveals itself. Not only is Anderson great, his casting also creates an inherent meta-separation, when juxtaposed with the recognisable stardom of the other performers.
The dialogue in particular stands out from an early stage, funny and charming but naturalistic. The set design strikes a similar sort of balance between being pleasant to look at and believable in its details, and for a contained single location film that makes all the difference. That said, the few moments where the film moves beyond the confines of the ship the framing feels suitably epic, and remains isolating in how the cosmic void makes the space around the astronauts (so to speak) feel suitably restrictive, with little room for error.
Most importantly — like Love and Monsters before it – Stowaway doesn’t feel like it was made for streaming. And, despite the film’s small scale and taut narrative, that it carries that sense of cinematic grandeur that makes all the difference. It’s especially a shame then that the service has for the most part, declined to push it promotionally, assigning it to the increasingly cluttered halls of ‘content’.
Also on Netflix: Homunculus
Unhinged - NOW
The most notable thing about this B-movie spin on Steven Spielberg’s Duel crossed with the bigoted middle class rage of Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down, is its status as one of the only (sort-of) high profile films to open in US theatres at the height of the COVID pandemic. It was also one of the first new films to hit UK cinemas when they briefly reopened last summer.
The story is mean and efficient, starting with a divorced mother honking at a middle-aged stranger at a red light while running late for work and escalating to cartoonishly, well, unhinged carnage. Russell Crowe’s lead villain role lives up to the title, his rampage in broad daylight feeling uncompromising in its misanthropy.
It’d be impressive if the film didn’t end up making the fundamental error of sympathising with Crowe by its end, a move that undermines its initial points about the prevalence of toxic masculinity. Ultimately, it’s hard to stomach.
Also on NOW: Promising Young Woman
War of the Worlds (from Sunday) - BBC iPlayer
Despite its infamously half-considered happy ending, Steven Spielberg’s take on H.G Wells’ War of the Worlds is his most paranoid film other than Munich, the blockbuster maestro’s talent for spectacle and wire-taut thrills translating perfectly into post-9/11 horror and heartbreak. There’s a real palpable sense of fear that sometimes doesn’t come across in disaster movies, where spectacle often overtakes the humans fleeing for their lives. Some of the scariest, most impressive monster movie-making ever.
Also new on BBC iPlayer: Philomena, Westworld, I, Tonya