Watching the science-fiction space thriller I.S.S., I couldn’t help but get the feeling that maybe this claustrophobic and talky material might be better suited as a stage play than as a movie, where audiences might be anticipating something a bit more compelling along the lines of a Gravity or an Alien.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s competent direction of Nick Shafir’s Black List script never manages to set the screen on fire as it is more focused on the increasingly tense relations between two trios – one American astronauts, the other Russian cosmonauts — aboard the International Space Station just as war between the two countries breaks out on Earth, causing great complication and conflict for the six.
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Spending too long to get this 95-minute space opera rolling, we meet the various players including Dr. Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose), the newest arrival, joining with Commander Gordon (Chris Messina) and the slippery Christian Campbell (John Gallagher Jr.) on the U.S. side, along with cosmonaut Weronika Vetrov (Masha Mashkova), Science Officer Alexey Pulov (Pilou Asbaek) and Commander Pulov (Costa Ronin) on the Russian side. Our first impressions of them reveal this is all a collegial group, that is until finally things go bump in the night in the form of emails from Earth that a war between the two countries has broken out.
First we see Gordon looking oh-so concerned as he gets a message to immediately take charge of the I.S.S. and get it out of the hands of the Russians. Maps of Earth grow progressively ominous as it looks intensely red and explosive down below. A game of cat and mouse begins as the Russians have apparently received a similar message from their counterparts. The space station now could be holding the answer for the future of humanity, but no one is quite sure as suspicions arise and conflicts ensue, even as we get the idea there has been some hanky-panky going on between Gordon and Weronika.
One of the film’s best scenes involves Weronika’s one-on-one confrontation with Kira, whose face and concerned expressions tell you she is fearing the worst but needs to stay calm. The action, which might be expected to ignite during such a situation, never really lights the fire, but we won’t reveal here who lives and who dies. What I will say is that I.S.S. all leads to finale that left me a little cold. What worked in The Graduate is a little more perplexing here.
Fortunately the film has DeBose, who after winning an Oscar for Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story takes on a very different role but proves even without singing and dancing that she has the chops. I never warmed to Gallagher, a good actor but lost in this rather predictable not-so-good guy. Messina is stoic here, dependable, and nicely cast. On the Russian side it is Mashkova who has the best scenes, but both Asbaek and Ronin are perfectly serviceable.
Cowperthwaite is an award-winning documentarian (the harrowing Blackfish) as well as talented on the narrative side as well with two good, modest outings in recent years (the moving true story Our Friend and another film torn from real life, Megan Leavey with Kate Mara). This one may be the furthest away from her filmmaking roots because those previous films really bring out her empathy and ability to stage emotional moments without going over the top.
The current cold relations between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine oddly give this movie some timeliness, but that isn’t intentional and the screenplay predates it. You almost wonder what it might have been had Cowperthwaite and Shafir decided to embrace the political side of this instead of shying away. Nothing particularly wrong with the film, but a little more of a beating pulse could have taken it to a new level.
Producers are Mickey Liddell and Pete Shilaimon.
Distributor: Bleecker Street
Release date: January 18, 2024
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Screenwriter: Nick Shafir
Cast: Ariana DeBose, Chris Messina, John Gallagher Jr., Masha Mashkova, Pilov Asbaek, Costa Ronin
Running time: 1 hr 35 min