“Stowaway” is less of a space thriller and more a study of humanity.

Adapted from the short story, Joe Penna the director of “Arctic” (2018), a diverse cast and the Oscar-nominated composer Volker Bertelmann (“Lion,” “Summerland”) collaborate on one of the most surprising new films this year.

On the outset, this looks like another adrenaline rush into space, but it’s far more complex and unique. There are elements of “First Man,” considering the character development and how the ascension toward the sky focuses on the astronauts’ expressions in severe closeup.

The themes of “Stowaway,” however, drift closer to 1997’s underrated “Gattaca.” The question isn’t, “What if we can live on Mars” as much as, “What if this was you” and how would you handle the specific situation these four hurdling toward the red planet find themselves in.

This will be Capt. Marina Barnett’s (Toni Collette) final journey into space; with her on their first journey is medical officer Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) and scientist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim).

The intense training all three have experienced doesn’t prepare them for a stowaway discovered on board, 12 hours into the two-year mission toward Mars. Their ship only has enough oxygen for three passengers, and the team work with those back on Earth to find a solution to their dire problem.

Is Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson) from launch support accidentally on board or purposefully there to sabotage the mission? The crew of three must work carefully and delicately around him to discover his motives while trying to find a way to keep him alive.

Penna’s impressive one-man journey of survival with “Arctic” was the kind of introduction to a director you know will only get better with greater resources. “Stowaway” is visual proof of that, continuing the theme of survival but with more versatility.

All four actors, especially Anderson, offer the audience varying perspectives of how we might feel in their situation. Their problem becomes less of a mathematic or technical one and more one of humanity. You don’t have to look hard to find the symbolism of how “Stowaway” might relate to what’s going on in present day.

Moody with bursts of suspense, Penna never allows us to get board with this film. We are constantly aware of the circumstances and the difficult choices these characters are faced with.

It should come as no surprise that composer Bertelmann hits all the right notes again. An element to the emotion in “Lion” was his original score. He finds all the right sounds and feeling again, underscoring the action and sorrow of the plot.

Bertelmann’s work stands above anything we heard from the entirety of 2020. While Barnett and Kim accuse Levenson of being the onboard entertainment, the “Pitch Perfect” star dials down the comedy to remind us that she is equally as good in drama.

At its core, “Stowaway” is about basic humanity and how far you might go to save another person’s life.

Final Thought: Stowaway is an emotional thrill ride in space.

Dustin Chase is a film critic and associate editor with Texas Art & Film, which is based in Galveston. Visit texasartfilm.com.

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