Film Review – I.S.S.
I.S.S. (2023) presents an intriguing premise. The International Space Station is a laboratory, observatory, and research facility that has been orbiting Earth since the late 1990s. The “ISS” came to be through the collaboration of multiple countries – namely the United States and Russia. As of this moment, there are several American and Russian astronauts up there, working and living together in a location no bigger than a medium sized house. Well, as some of you may know, the relationship between the U.S. and Russia are, to put it mildly, “Not great.” The film asks if – heaven forbid – armed conflict occurs between the two nations, what would happen within the ISS? How can the crew members coexist knowing that their home countries are at war? Is it even possible to do so?
It’s a fascinating question. A quick internet search tells me that, for the most part, work would continue as usual. Whatever happens inside the ISS would be exempt from any political sanctions. The purpose of the ISS is to build a marriage amongst all those involved. If any one person is not allowed to do their job properly, the entire station and the lives onboard would be at risk. And that is precisely the hypothetical that director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and writer Nick Shafir run with. The film imagines a scenario where the tension between the two countries spills into the ISS, disrupting the delicate balance that’s in place. Despite an interesting starting point, the narrative wanders in the second and third acts, trying to find a satisfying conclusion for the problems at hand. Ultimately, there’s a lot of potential here, but I’m not sure the final product reaches it.
The writing and direction establish a standoff between three American crew members – Kira (Ariana DeBose), Gordon (Chris Messina) and John (John Gallagher Jr.) – and their three Russian colleagues – Weronika (Masha Mashkova), Nicholai (Costa Ronin), and Alexey (Pilou Asbæk). At first, their camaraderie is setup with the usual tropes: Learning each person’s role within the ISS, plenty of inside jokes, lots of drinking and laughing around the dinner table while rock and roll music blares in the background. The crew visits the observation room, where they can look through the windows to see Earth looming in the distance. As one person points out, seeing the world without border lines creates a unique sense of togetherness. As culturally different as we may be from one another, in the grand scheme of things we’re all part of the same planet.
Of course, those windows are the same ones the crew members will look out of and see explosions occurring on the Earth’s surface. The visual effects render these sequences as enormous explosions of light. The further we go in the runtime, the more the Earth becomes engulfed in a sea of red. Shortly after, both the Americans and Russians receive messages from their governments, telling each to take control of the ISS and to subdue the other side by any means necessary. This is where the narrative is at its most suspenseful, as each crew member is put through a test of loyalty. Everyone walks on eggshells, uncertain of how much information they should reveal to the other side, or whether they can trust the very people they were just drinking and laughing with not so long ago.
Watching this dynamic play out, I was reminded of the Tony Scott film, Crimson Tide (1995). That was also a situation where two opposing sides attempted to take control of a central space – that of a nuclear submarine. But where that story was a battle of wills between two philosophical points of view, I.S.S. operates as a straight up thriller. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. But because the characters are so flatly written, encompassing one or two personality traits, the stakes don’t feel pressing. Ariana DeBose is a talented actor – an Oscar winner, in fact – but her character is relegated as merely the good-hearted newbie. Alexey is the stoic type, John’s only attribute is that he misses his kids, and the others are so thinly constructed that they have little to offer other than plot devices. Things do change once the teams receive their orders to take action, but the personality shifts are so drastic that it’s absurd. These are supposed to be heavily trained, smart, composed people. I don’t think their respective governments would let just anybody into space. So, the fact that some of those we meet fly off the handle and become loose cannons toes the line of believability. For a bunch of scientists, none of them think things out logically.
But what takes us out of the movie are the zero gravity effects. I’m guessing here, but I don’t think the production had the kind of budget or resources to simulate weightlessness as Apollo 13 (1995) or Gravity (2013). Some instances work, like the scene involving a spacewalk. Seeing a character pinned between the vastness of space and the enormity of Earth really highlights how vulnerable they are. However, some of the intimate scenes within the station are not as convincing. It’s fairly clear that the actors are being lifted from a harness attached to their waists. It was funny watching multiple actors in a long shot, all in the same orientation, and all having their rear-ends lifted in the air due to the harnesses. Whenever the camera switches to a medium shot, I suspect the actors were instructed to move their bodies up and down and pretend they’re weightless. Sometimes the illusion is believable, but often it is not. The inconsistency never allows us to buy into what was happening.
I.S.S. has a strong beginning but loses momentum quickly, ultimately flaming out with an ending that is ambiguous and meaningless. As an examination of the political strain between two superpower countries, it offers little insight. As a character study, it doesn’t build motivations well enough for us to become invested with anyone. And as a thriller, it only provides a sliver of intrigue. I kept waiting for it to kick into a second gear, to ramp up the pressure to a boiling point. Sadly, it never gets there.