I.S.S. Review

There’s nothing like a little situational irony to get the old creative juices flowing. Such is the case with I.S.S., a nifty close-quarters thriller that turns a symbol of international cooperation – the space station of its title – into a battlefield in the wake of nuclear warfare between the United States and Russia back on Earth. First-time screenwriter Nick Shafir and director Gabriela Cowperthwaite find plenty of fruitful opportunities for tension and double-crosses in low-Earth orbit, putting their ensemble in the roles of characters who’ve suddenly and startlingly lost the figurative ground beneath their feet. Shafir’s script is a little too eager to underline its themes, and some janky CGI bumps up against the convincing illusion of actors in free fall, but I.S.S. is brought in for a smooth landing by its pulpy exhilaration and Ariana DeBose’s strong central performance as Dr. Kira Foster, a NASA scientist having a terrible first week on the job.

It’s a scenario that could only be born of a screenplay: As the world burns in chilling oranges and reds below them, U.S. commander Gordon Barrett (Chris Messina) and his Russian counterpart, Nicholai Pulov (Costa Ronin), are given near-simultaneous, top-secret orders to commandeer the International Space Station in the name of their country. This raises a lot of big questions about to what and whom the astronauts and cosmonauts owe their loyalties and duty, but those are largely background concerns in the pressure cooker Cowperthwaite devises from cramped sets and emotional close-ups. The Alien parallels neither begin nor end with a chummy scene of the crew shooting the shit around the mess-hall table – in I.S.S., everyone on board could match Ash’s description of the xenomorph: “a survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”

That premise provides a baseline of suspense to work from; Foster’s nuts-and-bolts introduction to the station and its Russo-American status quo are nonetheless shot through with the knowledge that continent-decimating fireworks will go off at any second. Jangled nerves are the order of the day from the opening, rumbling shots of Foster’s flight to the I.S.S. alongside squirrelly military vet Christian Campbell (John Gallagher Jr.). Cinematographer Nick Remy Matthews’ framing only gets slightly less claustrophobic from there, but the camera remains agitated, bobbing up and down in an occasionally bothersome simulation of weightlessness.

The characters and the audience have been denied the comfortable, grounding forces of gravity, which would be more impressive if I.S.S. weren’t so keen to point it out for us. The floating, panicking CG mice at the center of Foster’s research bear the brunt of this blunt-force metaphor, which doubles as a mirror of the space explorers’ sardines-in-a-tin-can predicament. (See also: Recurring transmissions from CCTV cameras that remind us that the space station, like the mice aboard it, is always being monitored.) Comments about seeing the world without borders, a flirty glance from Russian to American (and vice versa) – these are glaring signals of where I.S.S. intends to go.

For a movie that piles on complication after complication, it’s almost too air-tight: No remark can be considered off-hand, and no arguably apocryphal Buzz Lightyear quotation goes without meaningful, third-act callback. Foster might not be able to trust any of her new coworkers, but you can trust that they’re not mentioning the relative strength of a keychain lanyard just to endorse the quality souvenirs on offer at the Baikonur Cosmodrome gift shop.

And yet I.S.S. packs in enough anxious deliberations and tense standoffs with makeshift weapons to remain engrossing and sustain intrigue about who’ll survive (and what they’re surviving for) across a taut 95 minutes. It helps to have alumni of talky TV series in the cast; DeBose, meanwhile, serves as the crucial, calming anchor, playing the relatable newcomer who’s navigating workplace dynamics thrown into radical disarray. When I.S.S. threatens to spin off into a void of ethical quandaries, ticking-clock dilemmas, and space-station blueprint red herrings, it can always reach out and grab onto DeBose’s performance for a little stability.