Fundamentally solid, unpretentious, bleak, and always thrilling, the space-bound paranoia thriller I.S.S. makes the most of a simple story, outstanding cast, and a kernel of a good idea. Like most B-movies set in space, don’t expect outright scientific accuracy or a high degree of overall plausibility from I.S.S., and simply approach it for what it is: a character drama playing out among six desperate and confused colleagues who are forced into becoming mortal enemies out of cruel circumstance. It might play off modern fears and act as a reflection of a world gone off the rails, but I.S.S. is best when viewed for what it is: a full throated, white knuckle thriller moving as quickly as possible.
American astronaut and scientist Dr. Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose) has arrived for her first tour aboard the International Space Station, accompanied by returning scientist Christian Campbell (John Gallagher Jr.). The vessel, which was created in a bit of post-Cold War cooperation and hopefulness between the United States and the former Soviet Union, is also the temporary home of supervising American astronaut Gordon Barrett (Chris Messina) and a trio of Russian cosmonauts (Masha Mashkova, Costa Ronin, Pilou Asbæk). They bond, bicker playfully, and go about their daily experiments and assignments until a conflict between the global superpowers erupts back on Earth. Both sides are given a covert message: to seize control of the I.S.S. by any means necessary.
It’s more than obvious what I.S.S. is going for on a cultural level and the various ways that the script from Nick Shafir is trying to appear relevant, but the real joys of the film lie in the simple act of watching smart people become stupid simply because they’re trying to outwit each other. Outside of always assuming that Kira – as the audience surrogate – is the one person who’s usually on the level, audience opinion towards everyone else aboard the space station will be in a constant state of flux, and like most highly entertaining thrillers, the double crosses and shifting allegiances are swift and numerous, and something terrible could befall any character at any moment.
An even more obvious question that could impede one’s enjoyment of I.S.S. would be “Why can’t they call just get along?” When they lose communication shortly after receiving their last ominous message and witnessing a front row seat to an apocalyptic war from high above it, what’s stopping them from simply ignoring the missive and trying to survive on their own in a civil manner? Well, I.S.S. has one answer for that, a plot device that doesn’t amount to very much in the end, but is handled like a ticking clock counting down to all of their deaths. But the more interesting answers lie in the personalities clashing on board. All of these astronauts are soldiers, first and foremost. Good ones. The type of soldiers that showed such exceptional skill and resiliency that they would be selected for an elite level task like this in the first place. Soldiers do as they’re told, but the situation aboard the I.S.S. is exacerbated by the fact that some of them have hidden, personal motives for wanting to come out on top. The human element at play in I.S.S. is far more thrilling and engaging than the overall bickering over who actually controls the space station. It’s not the political implications that turn people against each other. It’s their own personalities coming to the surface.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish, Our Friend, Megan Leavey) has made the most of what has to be a limited budget. She utilizes the confined space of the I.S.S. to the utmost advantage, and never leans into heavy use of visual effects unless a set piece explicitly calls for them to be used as a plot device. (Furthermore, the visual effects that are employed in I.S.S. look more accomplished and polished than most low-to-mid budget productions that take place in space.) Cowperthwaite and Shafir excel at keeping the audience on their toes and staying invested in the lives and motivations of the six main characters, most of which have a surprising amount of depth or, barring that, an interestingly subtle demeanour that makes them harder to trust once the going gets tough and everyone is at each other’s throats.
And those six characters are all played by actors who elevate the material tremendously. There isn’t a weak link to be found among them. DeBose ascends to superstar status here; a versatile performer getting a chance to break out of the mold and their comfort zone. Messina continues his string of great character work as of late as the gentle, but conflicted American leader. Gallagher, whose talents have been underrated for a long time now, plays the most frightened of the bunch. Mashkova shines brightly as the Russian with the most level head, Asbæk brings a lot of emotion to the role of the quietly conflicted member of her team, and Ronin gets to show off a menacing side as the person trying hardest to assert their command over the situation. I.S.S. might have a clever hook and some great direction, but it wouldn’t be nearly the film it is without the truly inspired casting.
I.S.S. comes across like a playful riff on the kind of military suspense thriller one might expect to play out within the confines of a submarine, only this time the craft floats in a different way. A bunch of people try to take control of a craft and attempt to make a decision that could save the lives of millions without fully comprehending what the implications of their actions could entail. There are pleasing throwback vibes throughout I.S.S., hearkening back to paranoia thrillers of the 70s and 80s and the kinds of sci-fi movies that are light on the science, but heavy on subtext and ethical substance. It’s not the most original movie, but I.S.S. is pretty darn great for what it is.
I.S.S. opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, January 19, 2024.
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