By: Aliena Abernathy
I.S.S Movie Poster, credit to "Bleecker Street".
“I.S.S.” is a strange addition to director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s filmography. It stands apart from her usual works: the critically acclaimed documentary “Blackfish,” about killer whales in captivity, as well as the meddling dramas “Our Friend” and “Megan Leavey.” Though "Megan Leavey” has action elements, the jump to a sci-fi space thriller with “I.S.S.” is a big one for this otherwise grounded director. Similarly, this genre is a first for lead actor Ariana DeBose, who has otherwise built her career on acclaimed musical movies “West Side Story” and “Hamilton,” which have collectively rocketed her to stardom. Continuing with the cast, we have supporting actor Pilou Asbæk, an actor with many acclaimed roles, but is seen here playing quiet and reserved Russian scientist Alexey. One can only assume his silence stems from Asbæk not being Russian at all. He can pull off a convincing Eastern European accent, but he negatively contrasts from his Russian contemporaries any time the script calls for him to speak the Russian language. The off-brand casting and leadership positions on production are only the beginning of the nebulous decisions which end up throwing “I.S.S.” into the black hole of January theatrical releases, a month typically reserved for releases that distributors would rather audiences and critics not give too much headspace.
The issues with “I.S.S.” start from minute one as DeBose’s character, Kira Foster, arrives on the titular space station with colleague Christian, played by John Gallagher Jr., to a welcome party of Russian cosmonauts and an additional American already on the station. In the first act the film aims to paint the cast as a motley crew of scientists joined together only by a shared sense of comradery through the wondrous experience of space and international cooperation. Unfortunately, production wise, it’s all a misfire. The editing comes in at a machine gun pace, cutting between shot-reverse-shots of characters every one to two seconds, while nothing more is happening on screen than a conversation recycled from every other sci-fi flick about the beauty of space. Using this editing, the filmmaker seems intent on guiding the viewers' attention away from the less stellar elements of the production, such as the CGI and plot, by never giving the audience enough time to appreciate them. This leaves the early scenes feeling like a fragmented meteor shower, each sequence crashing into the next with a disjointed and choppy rhythm, rather than igniting the anticipated excitement of a unified cosmic spectacle.
Even though "I.S.S.” is a film about astronauts and cosmonauts vying for control of a space station above a scorched earth amid total nuclear annihilation, the zero-g setting fails to evoke the breathless suspense one might expect. “I.S.S.” lives in the shadow of other great space thrillers such as “Gravity” and “Sunshine,” though takes no lessons from them. There seems to be a consistent failure to interact with elements that could put the setting to use: the terror of being lost in space, the threat of decompression, the scarcity of oxygen. Though these elements are lightly played with, they are hardly treated with the severity and tension befitting a movie under the thriller umbrella. For all we know, the film might have been set in a research station at the bottom of the ocean and the events would unfold the same.
The recreation of the International Space Station itself is stunning. It is a faithful reconstruction of the modern-day station, with accurate sleeping quarters where characters sleep floating aimlessly in padded cubicles, computers jerry-rigged into the wall, an exterior which unfortunately looks best when viewed from the dark side of earth, and a woefully underutilized observation deck. It’s obvious that careful consideration went into the design on the part of the gaffer to create an accurate and dynamic playground full of fragile gadgets and gizmos ripe for a director to use to create an interactive and dynamic environment, but as it stands Cowperthwaite seems unwilling to engage with the tools available to her as the I.S.S. remains largely unchanged from beginning to end.
Interior of space station, credit to "Bleecker Street".
To contrast the lack of setting utilization, the music is decidedly overutilized. For instance, the mundane scenes of drinking and conversing evoke orchestral flair-ups that distract from character building at key moments in the first act time after time. At its worst, the score is actively used to break tension during what should be the film’s most tense moments. Games of zero-g hide-and-seek hardly leave one’s heart racing when drummed-up jump scares and violin screeches jump out too frequently. It leaves an audience less affected by the tonal changes that music should give to a scene, and instead it enters the realm of emotional numbness.
The tiring use of the score could be an attempt to supplement the acting, though it’s one of the aspects of the film that needs the least amount of support. Every actor in the ensemble has an impressive filmography ranging from 2020s “Birds of Prey,” to “10 Cloverfield Lane,” to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” These actors have the right stuff, giving their all to imbue emotion in the most tragic and terrifying scenes of the film, but the less-than-stellar script hinders any performance from leaving an impression on the viewer. It’s an unfortunate predicament for the actors as the film introduces Maria Mashkova, who plays the Russian cosmonaut Weronika, to her first American production. Mashkova puts every ounce of her talent into her role, lending to the tensest scene in the film as her American love interest is killed by her fellow cosmonauts and she threatens to destroy the station because of it. Therefore, it’s a tragedy that by the third act she is also the actor with the least amount of screen time in the ensemble.
“I.S.S.” has no large issues on the surface, but the litany of small annoyances, the head-scratching casting decisions, the inexperienced direction, the stunted editing, the overbearing score, and so much more leave the audience finding more tension in the empty void of space than in the metallic metal tubes of the space station. The film’s saving grace is its runtime, coming in at an easy 91 minutes (about 1 and a half hours). Though this is enough time for the film to rear its glaring issues, it is not enough time for those issues to become overly harmful to one's enjoyment of the film. This leaves “I.S.S. in the strange limbo of a January release: not bad enough to comment on, but not good enough to recommend to anyone either. The film’s distributor seems to have recognized this as well, releasing it far outside of awards season; because in space, no one can hear you flop.