Tensions flare in the near future aboard the International Space Station as a conflict breaks out on Earth. Reeling, the U.S. and Russian astronauts receive orders from the ground: take control of the station by any means necessary.
A callback to the Cold War thrillers of the ‘50’s and 60’s, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s “I.S.S.” taps into the contemporary tension between the United States and Russia. Set in the close quarters of the titular orbiting space station, a game of brinksmanship tainted by paranoia and patriotism occurs with tragic and surprising results. Running a taut 95 minutes, the film’s small but capable cast generate a palpable sense of tension that compliments Nick Shafir’s smart, insightful script.
It’s Dr. Kira Foster’s (Ariana DeBose) first trip to the International Space Station and she must take a crash course regarding the interpersonal dynamics at play between the space travelers she’s joining. Her fellow American scientists, Gordon and Christian (Chris Messina and John Gallagher Jr.) are experts in their specialized fields, the former calm and assured, the latter a bit high-strung and nervous. The Russian members of their cohort are equally dedicated to their work and personable. Nicholai (Costa Ronin) is a bit more serious than the others, while a friendly demeanor lurks beneath Alexey’s (Pilou Asbaek) stern exterior. Weronika (Masha Mashkova) is the smartest in the bunch, her romantic relationship with Gordon, the worst kept secret on the ship.
A night of drinking helps Kira feel at home and she realizes a genuine sense of camaraderie and respect exists between her new zero gravity roommates. However, this is quickly dissolved when hostilities break out on Earth between their respective nations. Gordon receives a message from NASA, stating that he, Kira and Christian are to take control of the ship by any means necessary. It’s assumed their Russian counterparts have received similar orders.
What ensues is a smart, suspenseful game of cat-and-mouse that, at times, effectively defies expectations. Initial alliances fracture and unexpected unions emerge that cast the situation in a surprising different light. Sharif’s script is emotionally complicated and politically complex, effectively underscoring the fact that physical borders and rigid ideologies can have little impact where interpersonal relationships are concerned.
The character dynamics are the key to movie’s success. DeBose is very good as the viewer’s surrogate, the newbie trying to navigate the fraught situation she finds herself in. Knowing none of her crewmates and unaware of their histories, Kira is forced to make vital decisions on the fly, relying on her gut as far as who she can trust, decisions that sometimes pay off, while others, put her in dire straits. That we are in her shoes naturally adds to the tension, while the brisk pace stokes the suspense.
Cowperthwaite’s constantly moving camera provides the viewer with an intimate sense of the space in which the characters are trapped. The production design and visual effects are of the highest quality. The interiors of the station are meticulously rendered, as intimate details are present throughout while the film’s big set piece, a perilous spacewalk Gordon undertakes, is as good as anything you’ll find in a Hollywood blockbuster. That the film only cost $20 million is astonishing and speaks to the artistry and innovation of Cowperthwaite’s effects crew, while being an indictment of the bloated effects-driven studio films that sometimes don’t look as good with ten times the money.
The most gripping image in the film involves Gordon and Nicholai in a scene that brilliantly underscores the folly of the policies that will lead the two nations towards mutually assured destruction. That this message is once again vital and timely is regrettable but inevitable. “I.S.S.” provides a sliver of hope, pointing out once more that only in seeing others as we see ourselves can we hope to find peace.
3 1/2 Stars
When a film can transport you to a foreign land or allow you to feel and experience a different world, then it’s a movie worth watching. ” I.S.S.” does exactly this and so much more as it takes us to outer space and then we quickly find ourselves in a moral conundrum, laden with life and death situations. Sound intense? It is! It’s also a riveting depiction of human motives, values, and fear-based decisions.
To read Pam’s review in its entirety, go to RHR
or you can read it on-line in The Daily Journal on 1/20/24