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Review: Claustrophobia Meets the Cosmos in Thrilling New Film ‘I.S.S.’

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Picture this: You’ve dedicated your life to the pursuit of science and advancing mankind after you’ve had some pretty tragic things happen in your past. Your intelligence and work ethic take you through the Marine Corps and astronaut training to eventually get assigned to work on the International Space Station, 254 miles above the Earth. This frame is our way into the story through Ariana DeBose’s Dr. Kira Foster. Bleecker Street’s I.S.S. starts as DeBose’s character is on the rocket up to space. This is her first time going up, and just like the audience, everything is new, and she gets an explainer as she experiences it.

[Warning: Spoilers from I.S.S. are below!]

Pulse-pounding tension on the International Space Station

Soon after Foster gets to the I.S.S., war breaks out between Russia and the United States down below on that pale blue dot. The stunning orbital space achievement in international cooperation post-Cold War is jeopardized. (As well as the fate of humanity itself.) Coms mysteriously fail, but we see the terrifying and angry red atomic flashes telling us (and the characters) that things are not good. 

A single message comes through to each country’s astronauts, telling them to take control of the station by any means necessary. The drinks and words from the welcoming party night the evening before, for Foster, suddenly seem more sinister as friends, colleagues, and lovers are pitted against each other because of duty and borders. Adding to this is a ticking clock: the thrusters on the space station are failing, and without a boost from someone on Earth, the station and everyone on it will plummet to their deaths anyway. 

What follows with I.S.S. is a compelling space thriller that’s so well done. If you were being glib, you could sum up this movie by saying that Oscar-winner Ariana DeBose goes to space and saves us all, but that would be doing an injustice to both her performance and the film itself. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, writer Nick Shafir, and DeBose (and everyone else!) have crafted an excellent and original science fiction thriller that is a must-watch for fans of the genre and anyone who wants to be entertained. 

The tension in I.S.S. is ratcheted up to stratospheric heights because the astronauts are trapped together on the space station with these orders to essentially kill the people they’ve been living and working with. That would be hard for anyone, but when you’re stuck in a glorified tin can hurtling through space, there’s an extra element of stress.

The question that faces the characters of I.S.S is moral and deeply philosophical. Each character’s background brilliantly informs their choices in this story, and not one step they take feels out of place. They are all casualties of the pressure cooker. 

 Ariana DeBose in I.S.S.
Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose) in I.S.S. (Bleecker Street).

Ariana DeBose and the rest of the cast elevates I.S.S. 

The actors give this thriller life and make the tension believable. DeBose is the lead in this film, and her character is new to the space station. She doesn’t have the same family stakes as the other characters but wants to survive. The actress brings cleverness to the role and a calmness under the pressure befitting of an astronaut. The moments where she is on screen opposite Weronika Vetrov (Masha Mashkova) are excellent, and their blossoming friendship is real.

The fraught moments, too, with John Gallagher Jr.’s Campbell, are also top-notch. Campbell’s on-screen moments evoke Chicago’s “He Had It Coming”, and the actor really shows the single-mindedness of the character’s motivations.

Chris Messina, perhaps best known for Argo, brings the perfect combination of The Right Stuff-inspired American swagger and, at times, optimism to Gordon. His character also had some big triumphant and emotional moments, with a very cinematic sci-fi ending. Gordon’s affability is sharply matched by his justified and inspired violent turn. 

Masha Mashkova is intense on screen in the best way. As her character comes undone, the actress plays it brilliantly. Costa Ronin was an excellent choice for Nicholai Pulov. He embodies the old Soviet guard with a long memory. Ronin initially plays him with the distance from the others required for the character, but as he settles into Pulov’s purpose after the message from Earth, it is quite scary in the best way on screen. 

Pilou Asbæk, otherwise known as Euron Greyjoy on Game of Thrones, is Alexey Pulov, a Russian cosmonaut who is tortured by the weight of the decisions before him. In some ways, he’s the personification of one of the movie’s central themes: the struggle between national duty and duty to humanity as a whole. Asbæk telegraphs his struggle, and as an audience, we root for him, although it seems like it’s not in our best interests. The actor is so charismatic on screen, you can’t help it.

Bleecker Street’s I.S.S. is worth catching in theaters

I.S.S. is set up so well that, as an audience, we’re not caught up in plot holes and can instead revel in and fully experience the tension on screen. For every second the movie plays, you are fully in the moment and present. The camera tricks both make us feel like we’re in zero-G and like we’re being hunted, too.

Cinematographer Nick Remy Matthews wields the camera to magnify the isolation and vulnerability of the characters. It’s an intense thriller with, at times, close and visceral moments of fierce urgency amplified by Anne Nikitin’s brilliant music, too. Everything works in this film and creates at times what is a suffocating sense of claustrophobia. 

And if you’re picturing something extremely cynical with this film, don’t. With I.S.S., not all is bleak for the characters and the Earth. There is the promise of hope, and the ending to I.S.S. is ridiculously satisfying. Easing us from the thick tension the film’s 1 hour and 35-minute runtime is full of.

I.S.S. premiered at the Tribeca Festival last year, but the Bleecker Street film is now in theaters nationwide. It’s worth watching on the big screen to experience the pulse-pounding claustrophobia firsthand. The movie was exciting and has me even more amped up for Ariana DeBose in Kraven the Hunter later this year and the next projects from Cowperthwaite and Shafir.

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Ayla Ruby

I am a writer and interviewer based somewhere in the Alpha Quadrant. I love all things nerdy - but Star Trek and Spiderman have special places in my heart. Find me at @TulinWrites on Twitter. And visit my other website for more reviews and interviews: movieswetextedabout.com

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