Taking a more dramatic approach than having the same old routine narrative of astronauts discovering threatening extraterrestrial life and dying off slowly, I.S.S. deserves some praise for coming up with creative ways in its refreshing approach to the sci-fi thriller. With a swift running time of just 94 minutes with credits, the lower-budget film plays with the tropes of sci-fi horror films like Alien, Life, Event Horizon, High Life, and Sunrise. While there are no threatening aliens or parasites that come on board and transform into dangerous lifeforms, the real threat comes from a small group of American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts who orbit space together, and tensions among them rise as a war breaks out on earth between the United States and Russia. It’s a rather compelling and fresh concept that holds some modern parallels and hints at some rich subtext, but it ends up falling short.
Both groups receive orders from their superiors on earth to take control of the station. The premise is refreshing, especially in how writer Nick Shafir draws parallels to the modern conflict and tensions between the U.S. and Russia today. A narrative like this isn’t that implausible. Despite some promise, the dramatic effect comes as a real disappointment because Shafir’s script feels hurried, and director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s (Black Fish) doesn’t allow enough internalization or psychological tension to brew effectively before getting to the tension and bloodshed.
Courtesy Bleeker Street Media
Still, overlooking its shortcomings, I.S.S. should impress sci-fi enthusiasts. Assuming that the film finds its audience in the theater or on streaming or VO is left uncertain. It raises a fascinating question of how dynamics would play out on a space if allies of their representing nations suddenly broke into some sort of conflict. Would they debate each other? How awkward would tensions arise? Would they attempt to kill each other? Would they take orders from their superiors to take over a shared ship? Would they unite together as the earth below them is in flames? They are interesting questions that lead to some interesting conundrums.
The film is about six astronauts—three American astronauts and three Russian cosmonauts—who are working and commencing together as they orbit the Earth in space. At first, we see the astronauts drinking Vodka together as they listen to the song Wind of Change song by the Scorpions, and they all seem thrilled to be on the ship together. Once the Americans receive news that the war just broke out between the nations, they are ordered by NASA to take control of the ISS. Which leads the American astronauts to suspect the Russians received the same order. Once fellow American astronaut named Gordon (Chris Messina) goes out to repair, his life is put at risk against his erstwhile Russian counterparts. Meanwhile, his colleagues Kira (Arian Debose) and Christian (John Gallagher Jr.) are caught up in a cat-and-mouse game and find themselves struggling for their own survival against the Russian trio Weronika (Marsha Mashkova), Nichola Pulov (Costa Ronin), and Alexey (Pilou Asbaek). To make things more complicated, Gordan and Weronika are romantically involved and have managed to keep it away from them during the space mission.
Courtesy Bleeker Street Media
Visually, I.S.S. does a serviceable job with its lower budget. As you watch it, you only wonder just how much more Cowperthwaite could have pulled off if she had the same abundance of resources that Alfonso Cuaron had to work with in his 2013 masterpiece Gravity. Both the tense script and direction are confident in how they build up tension by utilizing the confined claustrophobia that we have become accustomed to since Ridley Scott’s Alien. The film could have benefited from some more atmosphere and creative visual set pieces with its staging. Although the way the blood comes out of the body in droplets in a zero-gravity environment is nothing short of haunting. As for the cast, they impress across the board, embodying their roles well, and their intense exchanges sell the film. But in the end, there’s something disappointing in how slight it becomes. There is so much that is built up, and there is a lot of potential in the subtext that is neglected in the writing, but like the space mission itself in the narrative, very little ends up being explored.
I.S.S. opens in theaters Friday, January 19th.