Review: ‘I.S.S.’

Ariana DeBose Faces Cold War Tensions In Zero Gravity

Astronauts who have been to space and had a chance to see Earth, this tiny spec in the vastness of space, have often come home with a broader view of our place in the universe and the fragility of life. It’s something called the Overview Effect, and in Gabriela Cowperthwait’s tense new sci-fi thriller I.S.S., Americans and Russian explorers experience it in all of its terrifying repercussions as they watch the planet flare up with nuclear explosions. What is essentially World War III has broken out while they are aboard the International Space Station, this symbol of scientific and exploratory partnership between rival nations. From their vantage point, it’s impossible to not take in the global ramifications of such a conflict, until they are forced to experience it for themselves on a micro scale inside this cramped, claustrophobic vessel.

Oscar winner Ariana DeBose is Dr. Kira Foster, joined by fellow American astronauts Christian Campbell (John Gallagher) and their leader, Gordon Barrett (Chris Messina). Foster is a newbie boarding the space station, where she encounters their Russian counterparts, scientists Weronika Vetrov (Masha Mashkova), Alexy Pulov (Pilou Asbaek), and Nicholai Pulov (Costa Ronin), who have been stationed there for quite some time. Both sides work together pretty easily, despite the language barriers and tight working conditions. Kira is there to study regenerative medicine in zero-gravity, with Alexy on a similar tract, albeit with that stern Russian disposition that makes him seem cold.

Nick Shafir’s screenplay quickly disentangles the various relationships. In such close quarters it’s hard to keep anything secret, like the flirtiness between Barrett and Vetrov that is a sign of something more. But connections like that become heightened after Kira notices flashes of light all across Earth, signs of explosions, that throws the entire ship crew into a panic. A Cold War of sorts breaks out as both sides begin speaking in hush tones. The Americans receive a secret communique with orders to take the I.S.S. at all costs. With the world on fire below them, accidents occur that only heighten suspicion aboard the station, and factions begin to take shape with nobody sure who can be trusted and if any of them will get home safe…or if there will even be a home to return to.

Cowpetherthwaite, a seasoned filmmaker who made Blackfish, an incrediblly nerve racking documentary about an orca at SeaWorld, as well as narrative features Megan Leavey and Our Friend, knows how to ratchet up emotions and elevate tensions. This is never more true than the moment the Americans get their marching orders, and they silently assess what they must do and question if the Russians have received the same grim commands. There’s also something viscerally unnerving about the lack of gravity, with objects and people floating unsteadily everywhere. There’s this sense that even if you needed to get away from danger, you wouldn’t be able to. There’s nowhere to run, and no ability to run at all.

Problems arise just about everywhere else, though. DeBose is a charismatic actress, as seen in her Oscar-winning performance in West Side Story, but she’s given really bland dialogue and gives wooden line delivery. We learn of her character’s background, full of tragedy, of course, which leads to a stint in the military, and perhaps that informs why she’s so reserved. It just seems like the wrong type of character for someone like DeBose to play. Unfortuantely, she is the focal point of the story and the others don’t have nearly as much to work with.

Furthermore, at only about 95-minutes in total, I.S.S. isn’t afforded nearly enough time to take in the full scope of this high-pressure situation. These are all people with shifting allegiances and conflicts, but the film doesn’t allow enough room for them to take shape and breathe. So we get a lot of characters who change on a dime without explanation, others who die without leaving an impression, and it’s just disappointing because the central premise of this movie has so much potential. While it is initially met and appears to be a solid entry in the sci-fi horror space, I.S.S. eventually crashes back down to Earth.

I.S.S. opens in theaters on January 19th.


Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
review-i-s-sAstronauts who have been to space and had a chance to see Earth, this tiny spec in the vastness of space, have often come home with a broader view of our place in the universe and the fragility of life. It's something called the...