One of the first things Dr Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose) does when she boards the International Space Station (ISS) is put her mice in their new cage.
As she’s talking to the tiny mammals in a reassuring voice, trying to soothe them as they float and flail in microgravity, Kira has an awkward interaction with her Russian cosmonaut colleague Alexey Pulov (Game of Thrones‘ Pilou Asbæk). He tells her they’ve had mice on the ISS before.
“Nothing to hold onto,” he says in broken English. “It does not end well.”
The unease in Foster’s face hints at the bigger issues at play aboard the station: the faint political tensions between the trio of American astronauts and the trio of Russian cosmonauts; the difficulty of acclimatising to life in near-weightlessness; the isolation and claustrophobia of being so far from home. The next morning, when Foster discovers that two of her mice have attacked each other in a panic, it hints at the violence to come. Less than 24 hours later, it’s exploded.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s movie is a subtle, tight exercise in suspense, throwing its characters together in a tight space and watching them struggle and fight like rodents in a box.
What’s I.S.S. about?
That doesn’t look good.
Credit: Bleecker Street
The central idea poses an interesting question: If war broke out on Earth, what would happen on an International Space Station in which Americans and Russians normally work side-by-side?
This concept is taken to the extreme in I.S.S., with Nick Shafir’s fast-paced script having Foster spot a storm of nuclear blasts lighting up the planet through the space station’s observatory soon after arriving. As tensions rise and the characters scramble to communicate with Earth, a covert message comes back to Captain Gordon Barrett (Chris Messina): “YOUR NEW OBJECTIVE IS TO TAKE CONTROL OF THE ISS. BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY.”
As the American astronauts regroup and decide what to do next, they arrive at a question that ignites the movie’s second act: If they’ve received orders to take over the station, does that mean the cosmonauts on board have received the same message? And if so, what are they planning?
Plenty of films start with a strong concept like this but never quite manage to pull it off. Fortunately, I.S.S. isn’t one of them. Once its frightening core questions are posed, it doesn’t let up.
I.S.S. is a claustrophobic nightmare.
Astronauts on the ISS are packed in tight.
Credit: Bleecker Street
Cowperthwaite does an excellent job of destabilising us from the get go. As soon as Foster is aboard the station the camera is forever moving, bobbing and tilting like it’s adrift and bringing with it a feeling of destabilisation that’s close to sea sickness. The film capitalises well on the ISS’s architectural design to raise the suspense; as Foster is shown around the ISS, we see where she’ll be sleeping — it’s about the size of a closet — and she struggles to keep her balance as she’s shown the tightly-packed corridors and rooms.
The message this sends is clear: The ISS is an alien environment. Earthly comfort seems near impossible. The place is a rabbit warren with little room for privacy and none for escape.
Later, when violence breaks out, the physical space of the station is used to strong effect, with characters constantly looking over their shoulders and peering down the station’s narrow corridors, wondering who might be listening as they plot and whisper. Pair this with Nick Remy Matthews’ beautiful space cinematography and there’s a near-constant reminder of just how far from their loved ones the crew of the ISS is.
“You forget about everything that happens down there, when you can see the beauty from up here,” says Pulov early on. If only that were true.
Does I.S.S. have any weaknesses?
As I mentioned before, the film is a fast-paced one. It moves us along as a good speed. But there were times when I wondered if the tension couldn’t have been drawn out that little bit longer. The runtime is only 94 minutes — normally something I’m a big fan of in a film — but I did wonder if an extra 10 minutes or so might have helped flesh out the characters a bit more. Most are given their own motivations and backstories ‚ Foster and Barrett share a tense heart-to-heart during a memorable spacewalk, for instance — but some are less well-rounded than others. A bit more time to get to know people would have helped raise the stakes that little bit higher.
Despite this, though, I.S.S. is still a suspenseful and well-executed story. It’s a film about trust, and suspicion, and the things people are capable of doing to each other when the circumstances are desperate enough.
How to watch: I.S.S. is in theaters Jan. 19.