In I.S.S., six astronauts from two countries head to the International Space Station — only to learn that political turmoil is brewing on Earth. The dramatic space action-thriller from director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (The Grab) tells the story of a fictional astronaut crew who faces unforeseen circumstances after receiving messages from Earth. Cowperthwaite is known for her impactful documentary films, so the fictional tale of I.S.S. is new territory for the director.
Speaking of treading new territory, the film stars the talented Ariana DeBose (“Schmigadoon!,” West Side Story) in a role quite different from the musicals she’s best known for. Here she plays Dr. Kira Foster, a scientist who straps into a spacecraft and flies to the I.S.S. alongside her fellow astronaut Christian (John Gallagher Jr.). Once they arrive safely at the International Space Station (I.S.S.), they’re introduced to Russian astronauts Alexy (Pilou Asbæk), Nicholai (Costa Ronin), and Weronika (Masha Mashkova), and American astronaut Gordon (Chris Messina), who are aboard the I.S.S. to perform their own scientific research.
The crew of six get to know each other during their first hours aboard the I.S.S., or International Space Station. They chat and talk about their various science experiments to pass the time. But the three Americans and three Russians have only just started to get acquainted before they suddenly get horrific news from Earth. The unthinkable is occurring before their very eyes. In a secret message hidden from the Russians, the Americans are asked by their leaders to take control of the I.S.S., an important “primary foothold,” before the rival country can assume control of it. The Americans are startled by this order given by their country, knowing that they’re vulnerable in outer space.
The lack of gravity in outer space makes for unsettling and tense territory in I.S.S. The sound design, comprised of shuddering booms and thunder-like rumbling in the background, keeps you on edge during the 95-minute runtime. You always feel like you are also trapped in the claustrophobic space station with the crew.
One of the best parts of space movies, in general, are their action scenes. I.S.S. doesn’t disappoint in that regard — there are cool fight scenes where the astronauts scuffle around in zero gravity. And the gravity, pun intended, of their isolation alone in space makes for some seriously terrifying moments. One particularly sinister scene where Gordon traverses outside the safety of the I.S.S. gave me goosebumps.
As one astronaut notes, it’s hard to sleep in zero gravity. It’s a little harder to do all basic activities, like sharing a bottle of alcohol after a long day of work, which is complicated by the liquid floating away in tiny bubbles. The creative use of liquids in this movie is just slight nuance that I.S.S. uses to immerse you into the atmosphere. It comes into play during fight scenes when bubbles of blood bloom from the astronaut’s wounds and float in the air alongside them as a reminder of the violence we’re witnessing. The feel of the zero-gravity cinematography by Nick Remy Matthews complements the weightlessness of the viewing experience.
The visuals of this movie are moving and profound; when the astronauts gather to look at the view of Earth from space, Weronika says that the sight makes many people have an immediate realization that humanity is connected. Kira doesn’t quite feel that connection as strongly as Weronika seems to, but later as the Earth is alight with explosions, the sentiment is chilling.
The many combined talents on this project make I.S.S. a strong film. It’s no surprise that this story is strong — the script by Nick Shafir was one of the 2020 Black List’s best-unproduced screenplays. Despite an “American vs. Russians” setup that seems like easy fodder for a filmmaker in the current political climate, I.S.S. mainly leaves the politics on planet Earth. Instead, I.S.S. focuses on the stories the characters have to tell: the astronauts are simply human beings together-alone in outer space, reliant on each other for survival.
I.S.S. had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival.