I.S.S. Review: A White-Knuckled Sci-Fi Thriller

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It’s time for a science fiction thriller set on the International Space Station. I.S.S. is a movie that gets a 10 out of 10 for the originality of its setting. We’ve seen movies set in space before but on the I.S.S.? I’m surprised Tom Cruise didn’t get to it first. This movie started out as a screenplay on the Black List from Nick Shafir and is now a real feature film distributed by Bleecker Street. Fortunately, it’s a captivating thriller that allows you to feel the uncertainty and tension in every minute with its clever ideas and solid execution.

There are a few comps that come to mind with this film. Much like the 1979 film Alien, this movie features a group of people on a spaceship when something goes horribly wrong. There’s an element of The Thing, with an isolated group of people facing increasing paranoia surrounding each other. A more recent movie we can compare this to is Gravity, another 90-minute thriller set in space. If a combination of those three movies sounds good to you, that’s what you’re in for with this well-paced, well-written film that makes the most of its one location.

What makes this movie unique is that it’s not a monster movie. To sum I.S.S. up in the cheesiest way possible, the real monster was in ourselves all along. That’s the deal with this premise. The first act establishes a happy camaraderie between the American and Russian scientists on the I.S.S. But when war breaks out between the countries on Earth, we have a brilliant, captivating moment that sets the Americans down a path. They are given orders by their government to take control of the I.S.S. using any means necessary, a message they must keep secret from the Russians onboard.

And from here, we have our movie. The dialogue is well-directed, particularly in the first act when the characters are talking, interacting, and having fun. The way their dialogue overlaps is a hard thing to direct on the day and edit in post. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite handles these scenes very well. It’s a sharp contrast from the rest of the movie, where there aren’t a lot of vibrant, fun conversations. Once those orders come in, the paranoia sets in. It’s a tense, exciting ride as you go through each character and think about their motivations and what they may do next.

I.S.S. never neglects the characters, either. We get a few wonderful moments of backstory with Dr. Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose) and Christian (John Gallagher Jr.). One of the best elements here is a very natural but powerful moment regarding a character’s sexual orientation. It’s subtle and well-executed. Although the backstories don’t always affect every character’s journey, it helps to know a little about who we’re watching. This way, a few of the actions the characters perform during the latter half of the movie feel justified.

Something that might go over people’s heads is that I.S.S. is shot entirely on Earth, but the filmmakers needed to sell that the characters were in a zero-gravity environment. The amount of work that needed to go into selling this type of space had to have been elaborate and carefully planned. You watch the movie long enough, and you barely even notice the fact that the characters are floating in every scene. However, the logistics of making every character float in every scene rather than simply standing there needs to be mentioned, and Cowperwaithe and her crew should be commended for seamlessly launching us into the I.S.S.

This also affects the camera. You can’t really have a locked-off tripod shot on the I.S.S. because a tripod would just float into the air. Therefore, each shot needs to be imbued with a sense of movement that matches our characters. The camera is just as zero-gravity as the characters, allowing every shot to feel like it’s handheld. With this choice, there ends up being an intensity as the characters are physically unstable, and they soon find themselves in the same place mentally. It’s an enthralling experience that can only exist with a premise like this.

Another interesting thing that I.S.S. explores is the fact that none of the characters are villains. We don’t have evil mustache-twirling villains hoping to destroy the world. These characters are scientists. They may or may not follow orders to serve their country. They’re going to act in their self-interest. It will have you guessing who’s telling the truth and who isn’t. A few of the motivations and character moments could have been stronger. However, I.S.S. remains a solid thriller with excellent performances. Oscar winner Ariana DeBose is superb in her first non-musical movie. I’m a sucker for good sci-fi, and this is one of the better original concepts of recent memory.

SCORE: 7/10

As ComingSoon’s review policy explains, a score of 7 equates to “Good.” A successful piece of entertainment that is worth checking out, but it may not appeal to everyone.


Disclosure: ComingSoon received a screener link for our I.S.S. review.

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