In the geopolitical equivalent of a custody battle, who would gain control of the International Space Station, the United States or Russia? This is the premise of the film “I.S.S.” a spacefaring thriller that was released in theaters on Jan. 19.
The film stars Ariana DeBose, Chris Messina, John Gallagher Jr., Maria Maskova, Costa Ronin, and Pilou Asbæk as a group of astronauts on the I.S.S. when the U.S. and Russia begin a nuclear war. Both governments order their astronauts to take over the space station—by any means necessary.
The film was directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. She previously directed the 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” which exposed SeaWorld’s abuse of orcas. Though she has directed fiction films before, “I.S.S.” is her first science fiction thriller.
The thrills are not cheap jumpscares. Instead, the film slowly builds tension and suspense as the astronauts slowly descend into desperation and their trust erodes. It is an uneasy watch that only becomes more suspenseful as it goes.
The cinematography expertly builds suspense. The space station is crammed and tight, making it feel suffocating. When the scenes are outside of the station, space is an uncanny, uncaring monster. The station is massive compared to the astronauts and strangely lit when compared to the backdrop, a dark void.
Terror is added when the camera pans to earth. As the movie progresses, the world literally burns and becomes more catastrophic and devastating with every new shot.
The special effects make the film all the more impressive. The entire plot takes place on a space station with zero gravity. Characters make complicated movements and stunts that make the movie seem as if it was actually filmed in space. Together, the special effects and cinematography make the imagery eye-catching and memorable.
With the closed spaces, the actors' faces are emphasized. The movie is intimate, adding to the terror as the characters' own terror is up front and personal.
The film struggles with logic. The premise already demands a high level of disbelief as the I.S.S. is dedicated to science, it doesn’t make sense strategically to demand one side take it. The film does offer an explanation for this toward the end, but has several other logical problems.
Certain twists don’t make sense, leading to plot holes. This undermines the suspense as characters and governments often make their choices based on what the plot wants, not their own motivations. It breaks the ability to suspend disbelief when all the plot holes, inconsistencies, and unexplained reasonings add up.
The character weaknesses are especially present with the Russians. Despite both the American and Russian astronauts receiving the same orders, only the Russian ones actually follow them. The film leans on the trope of evil, untrustworthy Russians.
Never once do the Americans follow their orders, only ever backstabbing anyone (literally backstabbing) for personal reasons. The Russian characters in general are underdeveloped, the film favoring the backstories and motives of the Americans.
Visually, “I.S.S.” is an incredible thriller that brings out the horror of space with its cinematography. However, the plot holes and underdeveloped characters hinder the film from going beyond its atmosphere.
“I.S.S.” is currently playing in theaters.
Rating: 6 out of 10 stars.
Frank Remski is a film and theater reviewer for the Eastern Echo. He is majoring in media studies and journalism and minoring in public relations. He has worked for The Echo since the summer of 2023 and has written both news stories and opinion pieces.