I.S.S. (2023)

‘I.S.S.’ has its own version of ‘Star Wars’

As she proved with the exceptional “Blackfish,” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite is keenly aware that no good can come from trapping rampaging mammals in confined spaces. It’s an insight that serves her well again with “I.S.S.,” a Cold War revival tale pitting sneaky Ruskies against noble Americans aboard the International Space Station.

That it stars Oscar-winner Ariana DeBose bolsters the bona fides of an indie space opera that maximizes its limited special effects budget by staging a proxy war entirely inside a tiny satellite orbiting perilously close to Earth’s atmosphere. So much for international alliances.

Not that it doesn’t start well, as astronaut Gordon Bennett (Chris Messina) and cosmonauts Weronika Vetrov (Masha Mashkova), Alexey Pulov (Pilou Asbæk) and Nicholai Pulov (Costa Ronin) welcome rookies Dr. Kira Foster (DeBose) and Christian Campbell (John Gallagher Jr.) to their claustrophobic abode among the stars. But the newbies’ acclimation to weightlessness (Try sleeping in zero gravity!) is about to become significantly more difficult as a succession of massive explosions start spattering the surface of the big blue marble.

Kira initially believes the phenomenon is a series of erupting volcanoes. But an ominous communique from ground control confirms the crews’ worst fear that the U.S. and Russia are unleashing nuclear bombs. Suddenly there’s a marked shift in the air of joy and goodwill. Agreeable smiles devolve into suspicious stares. Rightly so, as Gordon and Nicholai each receive orders to take command of the space station by “any means necessary.” Let the distrust and attempted murder begin.

After that, you can pretty much play the movie out in your head, as just about everything you expect to happen happens. What saves it, besides the uniformly fine performances, is Cowperthwaite’s capacity to consistently ratchet up the tension among the six frenemies. But even when the power drills, screwdrivers and other makeshift implements of death emerge, Cowperthwaite and first-time screenwriter Nick Shafir allow their characters to maintain a modicum of humanity and remorse over what they unleash.

They even toss in a “Romeo & Juliet” interstellar romance that like most everything else in “I.S.S.” is a tad under-cooked. Can love transcend the kill-or-be-killed mentality permeating the cramped quarters? The answer isn’t as clear as you might surmise. Nor does it venture as deep as you’d like into the psychological ramifications of what’s happening on and above the Earth. As close as it comes is Christian’s distress over the welfare of the two young daughters he left behind. But even that understandable concern is all but forgotten in the escalating mayhem.

Still, credit Cowperthwaite and Shafir with concocting a fascinating premise. Sure, the proceedings grow unintentionally comical near the end, but for much of its crackling 95 minutes, “I.S.S.” clutches you tightly in its grip. Who wins? East or West? The answer might surprise as much as it disappoints. But the vision of Earth afire from on high is one you won’t soon forget. And pray never happens.

Movie review


Rated: R for some violence and action

Cast: Ariana DeBose, Chris Messina, John Gallagher Jr., Masha Mashkova, Costa Ronin and Pilou Asbæk

Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Writer: Nick Shafir

Runtime: 95 minutes

Where: In theaters and on demand

Grade: B-

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