I.S.S. Tests the Limits of Nationalist Loyalties

Image courtesy of Bleecker Street

I’m not going to lie, when I first heard about I.S.S., I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it. It was advertised as a claustrophobic thriller set in space, and that concept was both intriguing and a bit off-putting. On the one hand, I’m a fan of thrillers and outer space, so this movie seemed like it would be right up my alley. But on the other hand, with such a simple setup, I wasn’t convinced it would be able to sustain enough tension to fill an entire hour and a half. Nevertheless, as a completist who needs to see as many films as I can, I knew I had to check this one out for myself. I requested a screener as soon as I could, and after finally getting the chance to watch it, I’m happy to report that I made the right call.

I.S.S. was directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, and it stars Ariana DeBose, John Gallagher Jr., Masha Mashkova, Pilou Asbæk, Costa Ronin, and Chris Messina. As the name suggests, it’s set on the International Space Station (I.S.S. for short), and when the story begins, two American astronauts are just arriving.

They’re welcomed warmly by the American scientist on board as well as the three Russian cosmonauts stationed there, and at first, everything seems to be going pretty smoothly. But soon afterward, something totally unexpected happens. A war between the United States and Russia breaks out, and both governments tell their people to take control of the I.S.S. by any means necessary.

With a premise like that, I.S.S. stands or falls largely (but definitely not entirely) on the strength of its characters, and thankfully, all six of them knock it out of the park. The acting is excellent across the board, and the entire cast has great chemistry together. In particular, the first 20 minutes or so are basically just them getting to know each other and having fun together, and they really gel as a unit.

The I.S.S. with a war-torn earth in the background
Image courtesy of Bleecker Street

In fact, this part of the movie reminded me of the first act of Alien, so I grew to love these characters very quickly. I wanted every single one of them to make it out alive, so naturally, when tensions began to rise, I was on the absolute edge of my seat.

As I said before, I wasn’t entirely sure this film would be able to sustain that tension the whole way through, but let me assure you, my fear was entirely misplaced. From the moment these two groups get their orders to take over the I.S.S., their unease and uncertainty about how the other side is going to react is almost palpable.

It makes for some almost The Thing-esque paranoia and suspense, and when a few of the characters start acting on their orders, the movie gets even better. It ups the ante without sacrificing any of the tension and uncertainty that initially pulled you in, so as a thriller, it’s pretty damn good.

That being said, I.S.S. doesn’t work quite as well as a sci-fi film. Don’t get me wrong, the sci-fi elements are by no means terrible, but they’re just not quite as strong as the thriller side of the story. Most egregiously, a lot of the CGI looks pretty fake, so there were a number of times when it took me out of the movie a bit.

In contrast, everything inside the space station looks spot-on, and I thought the way the characters floated effortlessly through the place was particularly convincing. If I didn’t know any better, I might’ve even thought this film was actually shot in outer space, so aside from the shoddy CGI, the visuals here are generally quite good.

An astronaut in her suit
Image courtesy of Bleecker Street

On a much less important note (but one still worth mentioning), some viewers are going to be disappointed to learn that this isn’t really a sci-fi flick at all. Sure, it takes place in outer space, but as far as I could tell, the story doesn’t feature any genuinely sci-fi tech. Everything in this movie seems fairly realistic, so strictly speaking, it’s a space thriller, not a sci-fi thriller. To be sure, that doesn’t take anything away from the film, but it’s important that you don’t go into it expecting it to be something it’s not.

Last but not least, I want to talk a bit about the themes of I.S.S. As you might be able to guess, this movie is all about unity. It’s a plea for our common humanity to transcend our national and ethnic divisions and for people to hold human rights above the wishes of their governments, and for my money, the film conveys those ideals beautifully.

I’m not going to spoil how it does that, but I will say that it’s not quite as predictable as you might think. Granted, most of the messaging in this movie is pretty easy to spot from a mile away, but there was one twist I didn’t see coming, at least not initially. It admittedly becomes pretty obvious as the story goes on, but you probably won’t be expecting it right from the get-go, and I think that’s still worth something.

So at the end of the day, I’m happy to give I.S.S. a hearty thumbs up. Sure, it’s not perfect, but its flaws are basically just glorified nitpicks. On the whole, this is a tight, effective space thriller that will grab you, draw you in, and keep you on the edge of your seat the entire time, and it uses those thrills to send a message our world desperately needs to hear. It’s pretty much everything I wanted it to be, so if this sounds like something you’d enjoy, I suggest you head out to a theater and give it a watch. I think you’ll be glad you did.

I.S.S. is set to hit theaters on January 19.

Written by JP Nunez

JP Nunez is a lifelong movie fan, and his favorite genres are horror, superheroes, and giant monsters.

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