I.S.S. (2024, dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite)

by | Apr 28, 2024

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 96 mins

UK Distributor: Universal Pictures

UK Release Date: 26 April 2024

WHO’S IN I.S.S.?

Ariana DeBose, Chris Messina, John Gallagher Jr., Masha Mashkova, Costa Ronin, Pilou Asbæk

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Gabriela Cowperthwaite (director), Nick Shafir (writer), Mickey Liddell and Pete Shilaimon (producers), Anne Nikitin (composer), Nick Remy Matthews (cinematographer), Richard Mettler and Colin Patton (editors)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A group of American and Russian astronauts find themselves up against one another…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON I.S.S.?

During the Cold War, it wasn’t uncommon to have films playing in cinemas that tapped into the lingering paranoia regarding the threats of both Communism and nuclear weaponry from the then-known Soviet Union. Now, with tensions between America and Russia at their highest levels since the end of the prolonged conflict, it almost makes too much sense to make a return to that era of cinema with I.S.S., a space-set thriller that once more pits Yanks and Soviets against one another amidst the threat of mass global destruction.

But while it’s not necessarily a bad film, I.S.S. is one that you’ll struggle to remember more than the actual Cold War-era paranoia thrillers it’s trying to put a fresh(ish) spin on.

Taking place entirely on the International Space Station (the I.S.S. acronym of the title), director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film begins as American astronauts Kira (Ariana DeBose) and Christian (John Gallagher Jr.) arrive to the warm welcome of their fellow teammates, including their commander Gordon (Chris Messina) and Russian cosmonauts Nicholai (Costa Ronin), Weronika (Masha Mashkova) and Alexey (Pilou Asbæk). At first, the six share a friendly camaraderie with one another, but all of that comes crashing to a halt when they notice a number of devastating explosions erupting across the Earth. Both American and Russian commanders soon receive news that their countries have declared nuclear war against one another, and that they have been ordered with taking the I.S.S. for their respective countries (why exactly, since there doesn’t seem to be anyone left on Earth to even control it, is left ambiguous). Thus, the half-US, half-Russian team descends into deceit and chaos as they attempt to fulfil their orders, no matter the cost.

There are aspects of this film that do work. The set-up is rather chilling, with images of a literal scorched Earth (looking not dissimilar to what Oppenheimer envisioned by the lake with Einstein in that particular movie) lighting up the desolate realm above the planet’s atmosphere, while there’s the haunting notion that every single person that these astronauts hold close, including romantic partners and even their own children, have all but definitely perished in the nuclear carnage below. It is akin to a Twilight Zone episode, to where you’re almost expecting Rod Sterling to appear on the screen in a spacesuit to bookend the narrative, and there are times when director Cowperthwaite creates enough tension and suspense to successfully home in on the disturbing implications of the apocalypse happening beneath these characters.

The acting is also solid, with emotional and likeable turns by Ariana DeBose, Masha Mashkova and Chris Messina – whose face upon seeing the nuclear warzone on his home planet is a subtly devastating piece of acting – while there are some intimidating and vaguely slimeball portrayals by the remaining half of the cast (who exactly is being kept secret cos, y’know, spoilers). Furthermore, while the space effects themselves aren’t exactly as seamless as the likes of Gravity or Interstellar, the CGI has the capacity to create some effective imagery, namely that of the nuclear-ridden Earth that could almost pass for the Sun with all its fiery rage.

However, for such an impending event going on simultaneously, I.S.S. has an unusual lack of urgency that can’t completely replicate the growing fear within its own premise. The film is paced like a slow-burn thriller, which would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that it is established early on that there are some rather pressing matters to attend to, such as the imminent power failure of the I.S.S. itself within the next 24 hours, something that all six of these characters are apparently in no rush to fix. Even though the focus is more on the growing distrust between these astronauts, those more time-sensitive issues do linger in the back of your mind, to a point where you wish they would stop being so petty and hostile toward one another and just turn their attention to the things that are actually making an impact.

It is also a film that, for all its effort to build an uneasy atmosphere for its first two-thirds, can’t shake off its overwhelming feelings of dullness. There isn’t much about this space station, where we spend a vast majority of the movie with the exterior shots of the destroyed Earth outside kept largely to a minimum, that is interesting to look at, and while the performances are good there isn’t much to really say about these characters, who mainly fall into archetypal roles as the film descends into sillier and sillier thriller territory during its final act.

Here is where certain character reveals will suddenly have them doing a complete 180 on their personality as soon as it’s revealed they’re shady, while someone will return after a period of absence only to suddenly be shafted off again, making their dramatic return somewhat pointless. The ending, too, is one that doesn’t carry much satisfaction, as it feels like things are winding down once they get more intriguing, while the note that it does close out on doesn’t offer many answers to the questions that do urgently need answering.

There is a strong and truly gripping thriller somewhere within I.S.S., but it needed a severe script polish to strengthen its many weaknesses, which ultimately drag the film all the way back down to the surface, to burn alongside the rest of us on this doomed planet.

SO, TO SUM UP…

I.S.S. is a tepid sci-fi thriller that has a chilling set-up and strong performances, but its lack of urgency and tendency to become sillier and sillier by the act make it less entertaining than it ought to be.

Two out of five stars

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