THE STORY – Tensions flare in the near future aboard the International Space Station when a worldwide conflict breaks out on Earth. Soon, the U.S. and Russian astronauts each receive orders from the ground: take control of the station by any means necessary.
THE CAST – Ariana DeBose, Chris Messina, John Gallagher Jr., Masha Mashkova, Costa Ronin & Pilou Asbæk
THE TEAM – Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Director) & Nick Shafir (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 95 Minutes
Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s latest film, “I.S.S.,” aims to be like “For All Mankind;” the film even includes a performer, Masha Mashkova, who was featured on the latest season of the popular Apple TV+ series. Unlike that show, however, Cowperthwaite’s film is rather intimate and more focused on only a handful of characters. Most of the film takes place on a space station – with a few shots of space outside – and no view or verbal contact with people back on Earth. Those hoping for a true science-fiction film may be disappointed to learn “I.S.S.” is more of a human thriller and an exercise in tension. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because the claustrophobic and isolative nature of being in space lends to a more genuine sort of anxiety and the paranoid feeling of the unexpected. Yet, despite the more-than-capable cast’s best efforts, “I.S.S.” fails to engage throughout and almost wastes its premise.
Dr. Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose) has just arrived at the International Space Station and is given a tour by fellow American Gordon Barrett (Chris Messina). It doesn’t take long for her to get to know the other inhabitants of the station: three Americans and three Russians. Christian Campbell (John Gallagher Jr.) is the third American onboard, whereas Mashkova, Costa Ronin, and Pilou Asbæk play the three Russians. Foster has brought live mice onboard to see how they experience zero gravity, and she later explains to Barrett how she ended up coming to space. The following morning – less than a day after Foster’s arrival – the Americans receive a message from back home that a global conflict has broken out and that they are to take control of the I.S.S. by any means necessary. As it turns out, the Russians received the same message, and we see the six characters struggle with these instructions; some are clearly more willing to take things to the next level, whereas others (especially Foster) seem reluctant – and understandably so.
While “I.S.S.” is mainly focused on the Americans, we also get to see a bit of the Russian perspective. The story is very timely, considering the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and it’s a fascinating premise that, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to its full potential. It does help, however, that Anne Nitikin’s unique score gives the film a tense feeling and eerie atmosphere, even when the pacing feels sluggish. Character development takes a backseat, leaving the audience with limited insights into the protagonists, aside from Foster’s motivations and the initial character dynamics. Also, it’s unclear when exactly “I.S.S.” is meant to take place, as there’s no reference to cell phones, and the technology onboard the station doesn’t give anything away regarding its time period; we are to assume that it’s some futuristic setting, but that’s a conjecture. Another bit of a confusing detail is whether or not the Russians speak English as poorly as they claim, and also if the Americans (namely, Foster) speak Russians as poorly as they claim. Perhaps they were lying about their abilities to understand each other, which makes sense in the story’s context.
There’s the constant question of, “Who can you trust?” The characters are often in predicaments that call into question others’ loyalty. This is certainly something we’ve seen before, and Shafir’s script doesn’t really do anything innovative with this idea. We also see the characters often butting heads, and, eventually, it becomes challenging to keep up with who’s backstabbing whom, even though much of its runtime isn’t exactly fast-paced. To the film’s credit, it’s hard to predict what exactly is going to happen; however, what does end up happening is hardly surprising, and you can probably guess who will be the last ones standing. Any apparent foreshadowing is far from subtle, but this was perhaps intended. Cowperthwaite, who previously directed indies like “Our Friend” and “Megan Leavey,” is gifted enough as a filmmaker to showcase tension and unease throughout the film; she makes the unique decision for some scenes to appear as if seen on tape like we are viewing a scratchy, low-resolution, videotaped version of what’s happening. This gives it a unique, found-footage touch. Also, the zero gravity elements are very well-done, especially as the characters spend a lot of time navigating through that space. This is also on full display in a couple of zero-gravity-based fight scenes.
“I.S.S.” is a high-concept film, but newbie screenwriter Shafir doesn’t seem well-equipped to handle this sort of material. His script struggles with some pacing issues and B-movie-level character decisions that just don’t make sense. To be sure, the actors all try their best, even if they’re not necessarily given anything exciting to work with. It’s particularly disappointing to see Oscar-winner DeBose in a role that barely shows off her acting chops, even though her physical and emotional commitment is admirable. Asbæk (best known for “Game of Thrones“) does some of the most impressive work here as he navigates his character’s complex, almost constantly shifting loyalties and feelings. That said, much of the character work is rather surface-level, which is mostly the fault of the writing.
If audiences expected a movie about aliens and/or futuristic technology, “I.S.S.” is definitely not that. Instead, it offers a tense exploration of geopolitical tensions and the consequences of heightened hostilities between nations. The film also tackles issues like nationalism, teamwork, and selflessness, but it doesn’t necessarily do so in interesting and/or complex ways. It’s the kind of film that is interesting in concept but middling in execution.