I.S.S. (United States, 2024)

January 19, 2024
A movie review by James Berardinelli
I.S.S. Poster

Three Russians and three Americans living in harmony aboard the International Space Station (I.S.S.) – that’s the setup for Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s science fiction thriller, I.S.S. The film’s early scenes depict the day-to-day interactions among the crew, which includes astronauts Dr. Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose), Gordon Barrett (Chris Messina), and Christian Campbell (John Gallagher Jr.), and cosmonauts Nicholai Pulov (Costa Ronin), Alexey Pulov (Pilou Asbaek), and Weronika Vetrov (Masha Mashkova). Despite language barriers, the six get along well, with a romance having developed between Gordon and Weronika. Then, back on Earth, World War III erupts. And, although the I.S.S. is out of harm’s direct way, the Americans and Russians each receive orders from the ground: take the space station at all costs.

One of the more fascinating aspects of I.S.S. is that it depicts a global catastrophe from afar, a distant (although not necessarily impartial) observer’s perspective. The narrative doesn’t take us planet-side nor does it provide us with news reports or ship-to-shore communications (beyond the takeover orders, which are sent via a terse text-based messages). When it comes to what’s happening on Earth, how/why the conflict started, and who/what survived the holocaust, we are as much in the dark as the characters and that heightens the mystery and suspense. There is ambiguity in how the Russians and Americans interact following the eruption of hostilities but the focus on tension comes at the expense of dramatic elements. I.S.S. is an engaging low-budget thriller with sci-fi trappings but there’s a sense that it could have been a more compelling piece.

The setup also could have benefitted from a longer runway, although spending more time with the six principals in peacetime might have put the target audience to sleep. In particular, it would have been nice to see a better definition of the Gordon/Weronika relationship beyond a few sly glances and one passionate kiss. The dynamic between those two, rent asunder by the nuclear devastation of the planet below, could have offered a more fertile ground than the ones that end up at the center of I.S.S.

The movie’s second half focuses on the deadly cat-and-mouse game between the two sides as each tries to pretend they don’t know the other’s orders and goes about executing them. A lot of what happens during this part of the movie follows conventional thriller beats, albeit in an unconventional setting. Cowperthwaite understands how to wring the most suspense out of the situation, using the claustrophobic atmosphere to enhance the sense of paranoia. Of more interest is the way alliances – both long-standing and newly-formed – are tested.

As Kira, the newest member of the crew and, in some ways, a stand-in for viewers, Oscar-winner Ariana DeBose shows dramatic chops to match those she exhibited in West Side Story. This is a low-key, less ostentatious performance and her reactions to the shifting circumstances are the most believable of the six. None of the other five principals stands out in either a positive or negative fashion in part because the limited running time (a skinny 95 minutes) doesn’t allow for much in the way of character development.

Cowperthwaite does quite a bit with a limited budget (somewhere in the $20-25m range), illustrating that space-based films do not have to come with nine-figure cost profiles. The scenes inside the space station occupy most of the running time but the “outside” shots are convincing with a space walk thrown in for good measure. The images of Earth – blue and beautiful initially before turning orange and angry after the devastation – are haunting.

For an early-year release that doesn’t demand an excessive time investment, I.S.S. checks all the boxes. One has to wonder, however, whether this might not have worked better (or at least as well) as a streaming release. Aspects recall the (much better) early seasons of Apple TV+’ s For All Mankind. The small screen, not the big one, appears to be the purview for this sort of high-concept science fiction story. I.S.S. doesn’t disappoint but neither does it go above or beyond what one might reasonably expect based on the trailer.

I.S.S. (United States, 2024)

Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Cast: Chris Messina, John Gallagher Jr., Masha Mashkova, Costa Ronin, Ariana DeBose, Pilou Asbaek
Screenplay: Nick Shafir
Cinematography: Nick Remy Matthews
Music: Anne Nikitin
U.S. Distributor: Bleecker Street Films
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2024-01-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: Science Fiction/Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1