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'I.S.S.' review: Chaos aboard the International Space Station

Courtesy of Bleecker Street


A new Cold War is brewing and this time it’s with zero gravity in the sci-fi thriller “I.S.S.” How does the saying go? In space, no one can hear you debate Russian-American geopolitics? In any case, “I.S.S.” plays on those anxieties much in the same way “Fail Safe” or “WarGames” did before it. 


Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film puts the audience and the characters in the ultimate: “What would you do?” conundrum wherein astronauts and cosmonauts abroad a futuristic International Space Station are given a set of dire marching orders. The film opens with the crew of scientists and engineers living in harmony and conducting their research in an amicable manner. That dynamic is drastically upended when they witness what they initially think are volcanic eruptions on earth, but then find out a war between the United States and Russia has broken out.  


Suddenly, the three Russians; Nicholai (Costa Ronin), Alexey (Pilou Asbaek) and Weronika (Masha Mashkova) and three Americans: Dr. Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose), Gordon (Chris Messina), and Christian (John Gallagher Jr.) find themselves entangled in a chess match after their respective governments have commanded they take over the ISS with any means necessary. It’s a great setup and one that could have yielded dividends had the filmmakers chosen a more plausible path rather than stick to conventional plot mechanics. 


Considering these six individuals are all smart and reasonable human beings and have just spent, I don’t know, years working together and building a relationship, it’s remarkable how quickly this turns into “The Purge.” Not to mention if an actual war had started on earth, I doubt either government's first instincts would be: “make sure we take control of the floating science lab!” These questions linger greatly in a film that strives for authenticity, but as it inches towards the climax and one character makes a complete shift that doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, all goodwill bought from the set-up evaporates.


On the technical side, Cowperthwaite makes solid use of the miniscule budget: this looks and feels like it was shot in space, but the filmmaker lacks the bravado of staging tense standoffs that’ll keep the viewer on the edge of their seat. Then again, she’s not done any favors by Nick Shafir’s screenplay, which never throws a wrench into the main story so much as it chugs along at a routine pace, hitting every predictable check point imaginable. I kept sitting and wondering when and if “I.S.S.” was going to recontextualize its premise with a last second shift or final reveal that may have salvaged the script’s clumsier elements.


It never arrived and you’re left with an average thriller that gets lost in orbit. 

Grade: C 

I.S.S. is now playing in theaters. 


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