I.S.S. is one of the most intense films of the year: a character-driven space thriller featuring terrific performances.
Around halfway through I.S.S, my roommate came into my apartment to find me scooted all the way up on the couch, leaning forward, and gripping the cushions. I was so involved with what was happening on screen that it took her walking in front of the television to get my attention. While I completely ignored what she was saying, completely invested in the film still, this is when I realized that I.S.S is the textbook definition of a nail-biting thriller.
I.S.S follows Dr. Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose of West Side Story) as she is just landing on the International Space Station. Here, there are six people, three Americans and three Russians who work closely together on numerous projects. Around a day into her new role in space, both countries get a message from their bases stating that there has been an act of war between these two countries and that they must take control of the I.S.S. by whatever means necessary.
As proven in other films such as Alien and Gravity, space is a fantastic location for thrillers. It provides a solid reason for limited characters and locations, there is an automatically added obstacle with unfamiliar rules of physics, and even if nothing stressful is happening on screen, being suspended miles about Earth is no casual experience. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Our Friend) takes full advantage of this, maximizing the claustrophobic feeling of a spaceship while ensuring that even with the giant conflict that is occurring on Earth, I.S.S. is fully devoted to being a character-driven story.
Not only does the decision to make I.S.S. a character-driven story add to the intensity and weight of this thriller, but it allows all six actors to give emotionally complex performances. DeBose shines as the lead of this film, being able to convey so many emotions just with her eyes that allows the audience to immediately empathize with her. John Gallagher Jr (Hush) gives a fantastic turn here as well, adding to a lot of the suspense, especially in the latter half of the film. However, the best performance has to be Masha Mashkova who carries most of the emotional weight on her shoulders. Given the choices that her character makes throughout the film, this role requires so much from Nika to make sure that this character can still sympathize with her, and she does this flawlessly.
Even with such great performances, Nick Shafir’s screenplay is rich with complexity not only with the characters but with its themes of trust as well. From just reading the plot description, I.S.S. it seems like it would just be about a conflict between the US and Russia, but since these characters have mainly been living with each other on a small spaceship for some time, their relationships take center stage. “By any means necessary” makes audiences prepare for the worst, but the true suspense does not come from any big fight scenes, but from the betrayal of relationships, and not knowing who you can trust.
Part of what makes this relationship-centered suspense so effective is the lack of information given to the audience. We don’t know how long most of these people have been on this spaceship or who they are closest to. As we get tiny peaks into these characters’ values, it only makes us second guess their previous decisions making for an extremely tense yet exciting ride. Sometimes the film goes a little too far with the plot twists, having some of the climatic moments feel a little too far of a stretch for what we were exposed to previously, but it is all a part of the fun.
Finally, given the current global crisis involving Russia, I believe I.S.S. can do a lot of good in these times. Production was already finished before Ukraine was invaded, but this film feels extremely relevant and politically focused. For example, towards the start of the film, there is a whole scene that discusses how since these scientists are together, they have no choice but to not worry about whatever is happening on Earth and just focus on where they are now. Even with the acts of war that we see from above, we are never focused on these two countries fighting each other, only these six people on the ship.
I.S.S. serves as a reminder that no matter what global conflict is going on, there are individuals that are affected by this, a message that is absolutely vital.
I.S.S. premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 12, 2023 and will be released in US theaters on January 19, 2024. Read our interview with director Gabriela Cowperthwaite.