It’s not often you get to see a space-based thriller that doesn’t come with a massive VFX budget and a huge marketing push. Delivering viewers a lot of spaceships and monsters and planets usually costs a ton of money, and the absence of these elements is what makes I.S.S. a relatively refreshing viewing experience. Functionally, the film is a locked-room thriller that teases out suspense while mostly confined to one location: the International Space Station, floating in orbit above Earth, its space shared by both American and Russian scientists.
When we first meet the new arrival, biologist Dr. Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose), things seem harmonious aboard, with Americans Gordon Barrett (Chris Messina) and Christian Campbell (John Gallagher Jr.) working alongside Russians Weronika Vetrov (Maria Mashkova), Alexey Pulov (Pilou Asbæk) and Nicholai Pulov (Costa Ronin). In fact, Gordon is involved with Weronika, and for the most part the two “sides” don’t seem to be exhibiting any political partisanship. Sure hope some calamity doesn’t come along to disrupt that tenuous relationship!
Sure enough, while admiring the vastness of space and the beauty of Earth as viewed from it, Kira sees the first of many mushroom clouds blooming on the surface. Some never clearly defined act of warfare has taken place down below, and before long both of our groups are receiving orders from their respective governments to take control of the space station, evidently a vital strategic position — “by any means necessary.”
Probably the biggest knock against I.S.S., then, is that the subsequent double-crosses, shifts in personality and loyalty, and disruptions of camaraderie mostly don’t involve any cat-and-mouse stuff, which could have juiced the proceedings. Instead, the characters by and large suffer immediate breakdowns and start freaking out, which leads to predictable narratives places and pretty much all of the film’s violence. Things tend to get a little repetitive when, other than a catalyzing murder attempt, nobody’s actually doing anything to advance their respective personal and military objectives.
There’s also almost no threat from space itself, one of the most hostile environments imaginable — all of the danger and negative consequences simply happen because of deliberate acts by the characters. Thankfully, the performances are all sturdy; Asbæk and Gallagher Jr. are particularly well-suited to turning psycho on a dime, as their squirrely demeanors can’t help but foreshadow. And as the sole location, the I.S.S. production design is pretty terrific, largely bolstered by some pretty seamless and weightless VFX. Still, I.S.S. ultimately isn’t much more than the equivalent of a lengthy one-off episode of the vastly superior For All Mankind series; it achieves its limited projects just handily enough to make you wish it was more ambitious.
DIRECTOR: Gabriela Cowperthwaite; CAST: Ariana DeBose, John Gallagher Jr., Chris Messina, Pilou Asbæk; DISTRIBUTOR: Bleecker Street; IN THEATERS: January 19; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 35 min.