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I.S.S (2023)

Release Date: 01/19/24 [Tribeca 2023]
Genre: SciFi. Thriller.

Studio: Bleecker Street.

"Tensions flare in the near future aboard the International Space Station as a conflict breaks out on Earth. Reeling, the U.S. and Russian astronauts receive orders from the ground: take control of the station by any means necessary." 


“In space no one can hear you scream.” 


Not only is that the infamous tagline from one of the greatest science fiction films of all time, Alien. It’s a statement that encapsulates just how scary the vacuum of space really is - without monsters. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey may have come out nearly a decade before Alien, but it also understood and respected the mystery of the stars. Both films, while vastly different, acknowledged that loneliness is the scariest monster of them all because it invites madness. That’s not to say that no sci-fi film released in the decades since has explored this idea. While many have opted to have its characters fight physical monsters, some, like Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s I.S.S, are tasteful reminders of what it’s like to fight the metaphorical ones.


Despite being categorized as a work of science fiction, the film is a space drama rooted in realism. It follows six astronauts - three American and three Russians - who become pitted against each other after a mysterious conflict breaks out on Earth.


As the film opens, the audience is told that the International Space Station is a neutral territory for astronauts around the world to live and to learn. Immediately after, we meet two American scientists named Kira and Christian (played by Academy Award winner Ariana DeBose and Tony Award winner John Gallagher Jr.) arriving on the ship to continue their research on a promising new medical trial. While Christian has visited the station before and knows the crew, Kira has never even left Earth. As a result, her learning curve becomes the audiences too. We meet her crew mates, see how the ship operates, and adapt to the literal gravity of her situation.


A few days into her stay, just as the crew begins to accept her, they all witness several mysterious explosions on Earth. Unsure of what’s happening, the crew reaches out to Earth to no avail. All hope seems lost until the Americans receive an ominous message from their government. It turns out that a conflict has broken out and Russia may be responsible. As a result, the three Americans are tasked with taking control of the I.S.S by “whatever means necessary.” Before they can get any more details, communication is cut off. And what seems like a pretty straight-forward directive becomes difficult to pull off. Not because the Americans view the three Russians onboard as family, but because there’s a chance they may have received the same directions from their government too.


Despite its setting - and tension - this is undoubtedly a story about human nature. Despite its rather short runtime (95 minutes), screenwriter Nick Shafir manages to pose some profound questions, while providing some shockingly honest answers about what people are capable of when their purpose is stripped away. Cowperthwaite, who previously helmed the tearjerker Our Friend, once again demonstrates her immense understanding of emotion. Alongside Shafir, she effectively captures how the circumstance changes each of the characters. For example, some who may have seemed harmless feel forced to become killers. Bonds are broken. And the conflict on Earth, however serious it may be, becomes a means to examine how easy it is to erase kindness and compassion from our minds.


Ariana DeBose delivers another out-of-this-world performance as the film’s lead. It honestly is refreshing to see her literally out of her element (not singing or dancing) because it solidifies her range. John Gallagher Jr. and Chris Messina (who plays the third American) are also good in this, but their arcs pale in comparison to Pilou Asbæk’s. He is arguably the most compelling character to watch. Considering his history of playing a villain - and even his somewhat antagonistic role here - he delivers the most tangible performance. Regardless of what he does on the ship, it’s impossible not to empathize with him.

As good as the film and its performances are, it does have its flaws. And its biggest flaw is arguably its third act. Its shocking bait-and-switch twist aside, it feels like the ending to a totally different story. That’s not to say it doesn’t make sense. It just doesn’t feel like a satisfying end to the primary story set up. Additionally, some characters do make some unbelievably silly decisions over the course of the film. For example, despite how high tensions on the ship become, there is still one character who thinks it’s a good idea to exit it for a quick repair. So much of the rest of the film hinges on this particular sequence that it makes you wonder whether logic was ignored for the sake of convenient storytelling. Nevertheless, even that can’t detract from the film’s larger meaning.


Space may be the final frontier, but I.S.S proves that humanity might be the most important frontier worth fighting for. As it turns out, the most dangerous alien out there was alienation. Because without each other or, at the very least, faith in each other, we’re all doomed. 

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