VERDICT: Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Cold-War-in-space thriller benefits from a lean-and-mean B-movie sensibility crossed with seamless effects work and potent performances.
Alonso Duralde | January 15th, 2024
The U.S.-Russia conflict that fueled so much of Reagan-era filmmaking took something of a backseat after the fall of the Soviet Union. The return of saber-rattling to the global stage provides the context for I.S.S., a paranoid thriller that suggests that if cooler heads don’t prevail, we might all be doomed.
The titular International Space Station provides a tense setting for the action, combining both claustrophobia (it’s next to impossible for the astronauts not to be constantly in each other’s business) and danger (outside that airlock lies certain death), and director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish, Our Friend) and first-time screenwriter Nick Shafir cannily exploit those elements for maximum suspense.
We follow American astronauts Kira (Ariana DeBose, West Side Story) and Christian (John Gallagher Jr., 10 Cloverfield Lane) as they make their way to the I.S.S., where they rendezvous with their commander Gordon (Chris Messina), along with their Russian counterparts: group leader Nicholai (Costa Ronin, The Americans) and scientists Nica (Masha Mashkova, who recently donned a spacesuit on For All Mankind) and Alexei (Pilou Asbaek, Game of Thrones, A War).
While there’s tension between their two countries below, the crew of the I.S.S. likes to think of themselves as above such conflicts, figuratively and literally. (Gordon and Nica have taken this air of détente even further, having fallen in love with each other.)
Kira is still learning her way around the station when she notices through a window a series of bright flashes below; nuclear war has broken out, with missiles landing across the globe. Both Gordon and Nicholai receive classified orders from their respective governments to take over the station, by force if necessary. And unless someone in mission control restores the I.S.S. to its regular orbit — it came closer to the Earth to rendezvous with Kira and Christian’s rocket — it’s going to burn up when it reenters the atmosphere.
All the moving pieces of paranoia and imminent disaster keep the film running at a brisk clip, aided by Richard Mettler and Colin Patton’s on-point editing and a tense but mostly unobtrusive score by Anne Nikitin (Hulu’s The Dropout). The film doesn’t stop to give the six characters time for major exposition and backstory, which would only get in the way of the film’s B-movie sensibility, accentuating scalpel-edge thrills above all else.
Luckily, this is a strong enough ensemble to fill in any blanks along the way. Kira gets to reveal the most about herself, during a long conversation with Gordon about the woman who broke her heart and drove her to work harder toward becoming an astronaut, and the role allows Oscar-winner DeBose to flex her dramatic (and literal) muscles in a genre far, far away from the world of musical theater.
The audience can mostly guess who’s going to turn violent and who’s going to keep their wits, but it’s to the performers’ credit that none of their responses to this horrifying situation feel arbitrary. The cross-connections between the teams — Nica and Gordon’s love affair, Nica and Kira bonding as women of science — as well as the conflicts within those teams, keep the sides in this battle from feeling too clear-cut.
Special mention is due to the effects team that has so convincingly created the sense of being stuck in outer space; it’s a safe bet that I.S.S. was made for a fraction of the budget of a movie like Gravity, but this film captures that same sense of the grandeur of the stars (while the planet burns below, no less) as well as the tight spaces that the astronauts float through, unencumbered by gravity.
I.S.S. might not seem to have any grand statements to make about international cooperation, but it’s a solid white-knuckle thriller about a handful of people trapped in a dangerous situation, deciding to work with or against each other in the hopes of survival, so read into that what you will.