Dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite (2023)
A team of astronauts composed of Americans and Russians find themselves on the International Space Station as war breaks out between their two countries on Earth.
I'm not really big into science fiction as a general rule. I get the appeal, the curiosity of stories that exist in some near future with different technology, the potential for alien beings that could invade Earth at any moment, the mixture of technological advancement and more academic horror. It's just never really been something that has hit home very well for me. There are, of course, exceptions, most of which seem to exist within the realm of "modern" science fiction, stories that deal with technology as it currently exists (or close to it) but in a world most people don't get to explore in their own lives. I.S.S., the new film from director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, tells one such story, in which two separate teams of astronauts from the United States and Russia find themselves stranded on the International Space Station as the world below them falls into ruin.
Dr. Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose, West Side Story) is the newest member of the ISS, and she struggles to adapt to the different environment as her fellow astronauts and scientists make her as welcome as possible. Her American team, lead by Gordon Barrett (Chris Messina, Devil) and including researcher Christian Campbell (John Gallagher, Jr., 10 Cloverfield Lane), find themselves at odds with the Russian team after they begin to see explosions occurring on the Earth below them. The team receives a message from their government telling them to take control of the ISS by any means necessary shortly before communications with the planet are cut off completely. The team is now in a situation where they must decide if they are going to follow orders as the anxiety and paranoia begin growing out of control 250 miles above the Earth's surface.
DeBose, Messina, and Gallagher, Jr. are joined by Masha Mashkova, Costa Ronin (The Americans), and Pilou Asbæk (Game of Thrones) in a surprisingly adept cast. The six actors, who are the only people in the entire movie, are all phenomenal, believable as scientists and even moreso as people whose homes have been destroyed and who must now fight for their own survival. The story itself is intriguing, a great idea as a whole but one that is especially fitting (and potentially prescient) into today's climate of rising international tension and totalitarian potentials. It is also utterly terrifying. There was something about this film, with its themes of isolation and paranoia, that scared the hell out of me. The thought of being stranded miles above the Earth, knowing that everyone (and everything) that you know and love are dead below, that you can never go home again, is horrifying, and I.S.S. does a tremendous job of playing on those fears.
The cinematography in the film is gorgeous, as is the stuntwork that allows the actors to float around the set while the Earth burns silently in the background. The script by Nick Shafir is excellent as well, crafting a believable story that is knocked out of the park by the excellent cast. It's rare that a movie works on every level, but I.S.S. certainly does. There are no weak points in the film, and the only thing that I felt was missing was in the movie's ending. It's done to near perfection, but I desperately want to know what happens next. This is hardly a criticism, however: any good story should leave you wanting more, and this film definitely does. It feels like a companion piece to Alex Garland's upcoming Civil War, the other side of a conflict that has the potential to destroy life on Earth as we know it.
Whether it be because of global warming or the inevitable thermonuclear war that has been threatened for decades, there's always someone out there who will propose that we find a way to leave the planet for good. The advancements in engineering and space travel that have occurred in the last decade seem to make this a very real possibility in the near future, with companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic fighting to be the first to make space travel available for people who didn't go to Stanford. Like Ian Malcolm warned, however, these companies are so busy fighting to find out whether we can travel beyond our atmosphere that they're not asking whether or not we should. Does the ability to transcend our own planet actually leave our troubles behind? Would we simply be delaying the inevitable by putting people on these ships, knowing full well that people ruin everything they touch? Will this not just ensure that whatever new planet we decide to make our own eventually will become another toxic mistake in the tragic story of humanity? These are the questions that I.S.S. perhaps inadvertently poses, and they're well worth an exploration of their own. For now, we must be satisfied with a truly terrifying tale of aeronautical intrigue that is definitely one that you'll want to check out in theaters.
Who this movie is for: Sci-fi fans, Techno-horror lovers, Space cowboys
Bottom line: I.S.S. is at once incredibly well done and shockingly terrifying. The actors are phenomenal, the writing is on point, and the entire concept is something that feels scarily predictive. It's rare that I'm impressed by a science fiction film, and to be fair this one is much more of a paranoia thriller than it is sci-fi, but I.S.S. is a film that has the potential to absolutely explode (no pun intended). I highly recommend checking this one out in theaters, because the large screen will do it the justice it deserves. It's releasing nationwide on Friday, give it a look.