What an irresistible, damning blast of a conceit I.S.S. executes in thrilling fashion. Nick Shafir’s script, appearing on the 2020 Black List well before the current Russia/Ukraine war, posits one simple conflict that bears so many implications on humanity itself: What if the US and Russian astronauts aboard the International Space Station watched war break out between the two nations? You shudder to think about it – a handful of government-trained personnel witnessing the destruction of their countries from a vantage point few ever get to experience.
But what if the last communication between Earth and the ISS for both parties was to gain control of the installation at any cost? With this directive, Shafir puts strangers into this horrifying arena, where the unthinkable is pitted against the better angels of our own humanity. And six people – three from either country – have to wrestle with the decision to either follow orders or remain calm and think things through.
Dr. Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose) and fellow astronaut Christian (John Gallagher Jr.) have just barely arrived via the Soyuz Rocket before they and their four fellow ISS dwellers – American Gordon (Chris Messina) and Russians Alexey (Pilou Asbæk), Nicholai (Costa Ronin), and Weronika (Masha Mashkova) – see fiery red explosions coming from Earth. One mistakenly thinks that it’s just volcanoes erupting, but the massive swath of similarly devastated ruin says otherwise. Before long, Gordon and Nicholai are receiving the aforementioned messages that kick this movie from a pleasant getting-to-know-you kinda flick into a frightening kill zone.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite guides this film into attacking us on so many different levels. How does one approach this conundrum – as humans, as countrymen, as people with families, or as people mandated to follow orders? With the emboldened, brilliant performances by all six cast members, we get to see how each personality tackles this struggle, caught between emotion and dispassion, practicality and optimism, and fear and rationality.
Each crew member has a similar opposite – not just in gender, but in intent. There’s the pair trying to find a peaceful solution, a pair who drop their pretense for the shield of self-preservation, and a pair trying to walk the line between both extremes. No one goes out of step to exaggerate the already perilous situation; the gasoline has been lit and turned into a raging fire going out of control, and you can feel each actor’s transformation into their character’s preferred mode of putting it out, whether it’s by weapons or by avoiding it altogether.
We’re anchored on either side by Ariana DeBose and Pilou Asbæk, who center us on their characters mourning what’s happening on Earth and the loss of basic humanity in front of them. Everyone’s supposed to be conducting experiments, not locked in a deathmatch for supremacy. As the conscience of each faction, we see the film largely through their eyes while leaving room for the others to play their games for the upper hand. Cowperthwaite coaxes nuanced, well-supported performances out of this ensemble, maintaining an eerily psychotic calm that only beefs up the tension (never mind that it’s already been racked up to excruciating levels before even one action is taken on either side).
Coming in at a scant 95 minutes (including credits), I.S.S. doesn’t just pack a punch; it is the punch, a knockout that you’ll feel long after the movie’s over. There’s genius in this story that reverses what war films usually mean to us, with visuals of devastated continents being dwarfed by six people ordered to reflect it in their own microcosm. It asks us to consider the implications and consequences of actions taken to secure what amounts to a metal tube the size of a football field in the face of larger-scale war. And I.S.S. makes sure you’ll be unsettled by the results of those considerations.