In the intimate interstellar actioner “I.S.S.,” in theaters this Friday, you don’t feel the walls closing in on its cast of six, because the dimensions of their cosmic prison never change. The setting, per the title’s shorthand, is the International Space Station, that halcyon dream of a borderless space, where research and exploration of the final frontier may proceed unencumbered from the tribal machinations of terrestrial life—it is literally above all that.
That’s the way it’s always been, with American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts sharing their equipment, their advancements and maybe their vodka, putting aside Earthbound grievances for the greater good of humanity. But what if a nuclear war breaks out between Russia and the U.S.? Would the I.S.S. remain a beacon of transnational harmony or, much more likely, would each government see the station as a military asset?
This is the premise of “I.S.S.,” where Dr. Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose), a research scientist, and Christian (John Gallagher Jr.), her fellow astronaut, arrive on a Soyuz rocket for service at the station, joining fellow American Gordon Barrett (Chris Messina) and their three Russian counterparts, Alexey (Pilou Asbæk), Nicholai (Costa Ronin) and Weronika (Maria Mashkova). Their first day together is accommodating and jovial, if spiked by dialogue that can be all-too-obvious in its doom-laden foreshadowing: Speaking of a low-grade humming sound in the background, Gordon tells Kira, “That’s our life support. If you don’t hear that hum, that’s when you can start to panic.”
Indeed, Kira has barely figured out how to sleep in a gravityless space before all hell visibly breaks loose on Earth below them. Pockets of red, contained at first, spread across the sphere like a bad case of rosacea, and the leader of each faction on the station is given covert orders: Take the I.S.S. by any means necessary.
And so the astronauts and cosmonauts divide into their camps and their languages, suspicions accumulating, nationalism festering, survivalism ultimately dominating. There’s an attempted sabotage, a spacewalk that goes terribly wrong and, yes, a fistfight in zero-G, blood escaping the body in little bubbles. Aside from the novelty of the setting—the production design is a convincing and detailed simulacrum of the actual I.S.S.—a lot of this action feels fairly routine, buoyed by an “everything old is new again” U.S.-Russian conflict that recalls the Cold War cinema of the 1980s.
But history may well be rhyming, and Nick Shafir’s screenplay is a deeply pessimistic take on present geopolitics, savvily confirming the tensions of the zeitgeist without deploying nouns such as “Putin” or “Ukraine.” Moreover, “I.S.S.” is no “Red Dawn”-style propaganda film. As an antiwar movie, it’s an evenhanded cautionary tale, finding blame among both factions.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel that director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, a documentarian by nature whose most important film is 2013’s impactful “Blackfish,” found the most pleasure in the movie’s opening third, before all that nuclear-war mishegoss, which functions as a mini travelogue of the tight, surreal and singular quarters in which these elite men and women have found themselves. The camera’s a little space-sick, woozy from the change in gravity, effectively placing us in the astronauts’ shoes.
In a largely plot-driven movie, we’re even granted some insight into their backstories, with details that subtly illuminate character—like when they join together to gaze out the cupola of the I.S.S. at a pre-nuclear-annihilated Earth in transcendent wonder. Only Dr. Kira, however, doesn’t feel the mystical connection to the planet, the so-called Overview Effect that leaves many cosmic travelers forever changed.
I could have watched two hours of scenes like these. If a studio does greenlight a documentary about the actual I.S.S., Cowperthwaite has easily passed her audition to helm it.
“I.S.S” opens Friday at Cinemark Palace and IPIC Theaters in Boca Raton, IPIC Theaters in Delray Beach and other areas theaters.