There’s something exciting about deliberately small science fiction stories. Sci-fi, after all, can be as much an intellectual exercise as an imaginative one. I.S.S., the new thriller from Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, sports a six-person cast and a single location: the International Space Station. It’s essentially a 90-minute Twilight Zone episode, a socially-minded “what if?” story about the absurdity of nationalism and the specter of nuclear armageddon. But, as much as that implies that I.S.S. should be brainier than your average studio blockbuster, there’s not much to it beyond that. Cowperthwaite successfully turns the I.S.S. into a sweaty pressure cooker, but what’s she actually cooking? Not much, unfortunately.
I.S.S. ★★ (2/4 stars)
I.S.S. is set entirely aboard the titular real-life space station, where six scientists — three Americans and three Russians — live and work in close quarters. The latest arrival, American biologist Dr. Kira Foster (Oscar winner Ariana DeBose), gets the customary initiation into the tight-knit crew, which includes a visit to the station’s observation dome, which offers a unique view of the fragile Earth below. To her Russian colleague, Weronika Vetrov (Masha Mashkova), this is akin to a religious experience that recontextualizes life on Earth. “From here,” she explains, “there are no borders.” Their tiny utopia collapses when nuclear war breaks out on the planet’s surface, and US Commander Gordon Barrett (Chris Messina) receives a cryptic order to secure the station for his country, by any means necessary. Forced to assume that their counterparts have received similar orders, the scientists prepare for a fight with their foreign friends.
The political messaging is not subtle. The two sets of astronauts may not have the cultural context to fully understand each other or fluency in a common language, but they’re far more alike than different, and when isolated together, they naturally cohere into a family. Their harmony is disrupted by the demands of abstract entities (nations represented here only by muffled transmissions and text on screens), and in any conflict between them, everyone loses. Cowperthwaite and screenwriter Nick Shafir are totally unconcerned with the specific differences or grievances between the two nations, to the extent that this conflict could be between any two factions with the means to destroy each other. One can easily imagine the 25-minute Rod Serling version of I.S.S., where most of the astronauts — perhaps from the US and USSR, perhaps from two imaginary future countries — are eager to fight for the high ground in a war that has already set the Earth ablaze. That might do for an episode of television in 1960, but in a modern feature film, I’d expect at least a little nuance to the politics. By making the two factions interchangeable, giving them no real differences to overcome apart from allegiance to opposing governments, I.S.S. ends up trivializing its argument for peace.
I.S.S. is only marginally more complex than that, but it’s the performances that elevate it beyond simple parable. The characters may not be terribly specific, but they are convincing, and each performance hints at a deeper inner life into which the story doesn’t have room to delve. DeBose is the uncontested star of the film, but Pilou Asbæk (GoT’s Euron Greyjoy) gives his cosmonaut an air of mystery and internal conflict, the signature of an actor who knows his character on a far deeper level than the script demands.
Like the space laboratory in which it’s set, I.S.S. is compact and efficient. Though there are a few scenes that lean into the incredible spectacle of space flight and nuclear war, much more emphasis is placed on the claustrophobic interior of the station, as well as the subtler weirdness of zero gravity. The weightlessness of the characters is pulled off remarkably well, particularly once the conflict gets physical, but the camera also appears to float, its eye roving more gently than in typical handheld photography. Sound design also pulls a lot of weight (or “mass,” I should say), maintaining an eerie horror movie atmosphere throughout, and there are moments when the film’s atmosphere is genuinely chilling. This sense of immersion is occasionally broken when Cowperthwaite cuts away to grainy black and white surveillance-style footage of the station, a device that feels at odds with the isolation of the characters.
At times, that horror atmosphere can get overbearing, especially as the story gets more sensational in the final 20 minutes. For a thriller, there are few genuine twists, and savvy viewers will be able to parse out which characters can and can’t be trusted very quickly. Nevertheless, I.S.S. is still exciting on a visceral level, it’s simply lacking the intellectual excitement promised by its politically-charged premise. Without that, it’s hard to justify making the trip into orbit.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.