When Dr. Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose, 2021's "West Side Story") arrives outside the International Space Station, she’s told that while the Russians always knock three times, ‘our guys just swing that sh&t open.’ On board, Kira meets her Russian shipmates, Weronika ‘Nika’ Vetrov (Masha Mashkova), their commander Nicholai Pulov (Costa Ronin, TV's 'The Americans') and fellow biologist Alexey Pulov (Pilou Asbæk, "A Hijacking"), who she’ll be sharing lab space with. But just as Kira’s beginning to acclimate, she spies something very concerning back on planet Earth from the cupola of the “I.S.S.”
Laura's Review: B-
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite ("Blackfish," "Megan Leavey") and screenwriter Nick Shafir get down to business right away with their timely political thriller that makes the case for overlooking differences for the success of a joint enterprise, a metaphor for everything from the U.S. political divide to global cooperation on climate change. Recent Oscar winner DeBose leads a well cast ensemble, her hesitant newbie status engendering audience sympathy while providing our perspective on a strange new environment.
Throughout the entirety of her film, Cowperthwaite’s cast is weightless and the effect, accomplished with harnesses and tethers which took a year to digitally remove, is extraordinary, especially when the first I.S.S. occupants we see floating in air are Kira’s lab mice. While it is a bit unclear just why she has to euthanize one so early in her tenure (possibly collateral damage when it is revealed just what Alexey is working on), that upset is forgotten when she’s given ‘the cupola tour,’ the awe-inspiring view of an Earth with no borders, something Nika tells her is like a spiritual awakening for some.
Just after the six appear to have bonded over vodka and Kira discovers her commander, Gordon Barrett (Chris Messina, "Air"), and Nika are an item, she makes a lone foray into the cupola just as a huge red disturbance becomes visible on Earth’s surface. ‘Hey guys, I think I see a volcano erupting,’ she tells the others, but it soon becomes clear it is something far more serious. Attempting to get information, the crew discovers they have no Internet and their computers are down, but as the three Americans and three Russians huddle in separate corners, Gordon receives a message to abort all missions and take control of the I.S.S. by any means necessary. Then Nicholai announces the station is going to plummet and that there is a problem with their antenna that will have to be repaired manually. Gordon immediately volunteers for the spacewalk.
While nothing all that unpredictable happens in the overall big picture, Shafir’s woven unexpected interpersonal betrayals and alliances among the six characters which keep shifting the playing field and Cowperthwaite keeps us on the edge of our seats with tense pacing as things play out. The padded, upright sleeping quarter introduced to Kira as her ‘phone booth’ becomes a space for hatching plans with both Christian Campbell (John Gallagher Jr., "Short Term 12," "Underwater"), her lone American colleague when Gordon leaves the station, and Nika, who suggests both a bold (if somewhat nonsensical upon reflection) plan and impassioned plea for trust.
If you noted that anecdote about knocking three times at film’s beginning thinking it would be used later in the film, you’d be correct, although it’s shuffled into the climax with some subtlety. “I.S.S.” may state its themes broadly, but it is a tight little B picture more than worthy of the big screen and a downright treat for January.
Robin's Review: B
Life goes on as usual for the crew – three Russians and three Americans - on the International Space Station. Then, as they gaze down at Planet Earth, they see nuclear holocaust take place, leaving them isolated and without communication. Finally, each team gets their new orders from the survivors on earth: take over the “I.S.S.”
I have been a fan of science fiction since I was a kid. I loved to look into the future, whether it be millennia or ten years from now. Here, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and writer Nick Shafir plop us right in the middle, with the current tensions in the world, of a microcosm of the new Cold War.
From the start, we can see the attention to detail and believability that the filmmakers give to the design of the movie “space station” and the flight to get there. We meet Dr. Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose) as she and fellow American astronaut Christian Campbell (John Gallagher Jr.) blast off from earth heading for the ISS.
When they arrive, things are operating normally and the new additions to the station team acclimate to their weightless surroundings. As they settle in, Kira watches the earth from the observation window. When she see explosions across the world, she raises the alarm to the rest of the crew and they try to assess the situation without know what is happening at home. Then, the two countries somehow issue the order, “take over the station.”
What follows is a story of intrigue as loyalties of the crew shift and change, relationships develop and possible mayhem ensues, The filmmakers pull off this view of the apocalypse as outsiders looking down at the disaster taking place hundreds of miles below. Unfortunately, the politics that caused the disaster take hold and a power struggle between the two factions – American and Russian – is a throwback to the bad old days of the 1950s.
The effort of the filmmakers and their cast and crew makes for an exciting possible look at the future of man, on earth and in space. Too bad it is not very hopeful future.
Bleecker Street releases "I.S.S." in theaters on 1/19/24.