Home Entertainment Review | ‘I.S.S.’: Political premise elevates sci-fi thriller

Review | ‘I.S.S.’: Political premise elevates sci-fi thriller

Review | ‘I.S.S.’: Political premise elevates sci-fi thriller


(2.5 stars)

Set on the International Space Station, the movie “I.S.S.” is a modest but satisfyingly suspenseful thriller whose central conflict between the six members of the station’s half-American, half-Russian crew is precipitated by a decidedly earthbound crisis.

Shortly after arriving aboard the research facility — a high-tech, orbiting laboratory where we’re told its harmoniously cohabitating scientists avoid talking about “what’s going on down there” to prevent clashes between them — the crew’s newest member, bioengineer Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose), looks out the window and sees an explosive flash below her. Kira initially assumes it’s merely a volcanic eruption on the surface of the big, blue marble we call home. Gazing upon it, as her commander Gordon Barrett (Chris Messina) has explained, is prone to induce something called the “overview effect”: a quasi-spiritual feeling of oneness with all humanity, of “no borders.”

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As you might expect, she’s wrong.

Soon, Gordon and his Russian counterpart (Costa Ronin) have each received a similar private order from their respective governments: Take control of this floating tin can — now considered a “priority foothold” in a conflict between two of the world’s superpowers — by any means necessary.

It’s an intriguing enough premise, made more so by a blurring of predictable allegiances and a strategic withholding of information in the lean screenplay by Nick Shafir, who keeps us guessing about what will happen next, even as he flirts with themes of discord and cooperation.

Gordon turns out to be romantically involved with a Russian scientist (Masha Mashkova). Two of her countrymen are brothers (Ronin and Pilou Asbaek) whose bond will be tested by their own ethical differences. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who has a demonstrated proficiency in both documentary (“Blackfish”) and fact-based drama (“Megan Leavey”), skillfully grounds the somewhat far-fetched goings-on in the divisiveness of the real world.

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Anchoring the story is DeBose, through whose eyes we navigate the narrative’s twists. There aren’t a thousand surprises here, in a film that sometimes telegraphs rather than foreshadows: Kira discovers, early in the film, that her white mice have attacked one another overnight, leaving some mortally injured. But what handful of turnabouts there are get artfully deployed.

It’s fair — and fairly obvious — to say that the cast of characters in “I.S.S.” (which includes John Gallagher Jr. as another American scientist) are the real guinea pigs. Can’t we put aside our differences, whether familial, tribal, linguistic or political, and collaborate in close quarters? In an age of incivility, that question is the best thing about “I.S.S.” — and it’s not just rhetorical.

R. At area theaters. Contains some violence and strong language. In English and Russian with some subtitles. 95 minutes.


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