For the last seventy-five years, America and Russia appear at a stalemate. While empires rise and fall, the two nations with the capability of destroying the world diametrically opposed on most issues. It’s a worrying fear that inspires I.S.S.. With tensions high and interpersonal relationships tested, I.S.S. navigates human conundrums miles above the Earth.
Two new astronauts make their way to the International Space Station. Dr. Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose) and Christian Campbell (John Gallagher Jr.) dock at the station and are greeted by four other astronauts. The only other American on the ship is Gordon Barrett (Chris Messina), who is in a relationship with Russian cosmonaut Vetrov (Maria Mashkova). The other two Russian scientists, Alexey (Pilou Asbæk) and Nicholai (Costa Ronin), are friendly. However, when news reaches the team about problems on Earth, the dynamic changes.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite pushes the limits of I.S.S. visually. There are impressive shots and angles created throughout the movie. It’s surprising an indie drama can pull off these tricks. Meanwhile, screenwriter Nick Shafir ratchets up the tension in the dialogue. The fear of what comes next, as well as the fear of each other, quickly takes over. Even when characters lie, forge alliances, and change their priorities, I.S.S. continually forces the audience to question our information. There are few characters we can trust, and the battles occurring between the characters create shocking moments.
The performances from the ensemble are excellent. DeBose serves as our way into the group, as the other five members of the station already know each other. This puts her at a disadvantage but also causes her humanity to shine through. She cannot tell when others are deceiving her, and as a result, opening alliances that others may not. She plays the drama well and pairs with almost every member of the ensemble at some point.
Messina and Gallagher provide very different aspects of the experience as well. Gallagher stands out with more screen time, but Messina brings rage and disbelief. As they try to work through the scenarios facing them, they begin to revert to their true selves. The transformations are impressive and stand in stark contrast to the more subtle performances from Asbæk and Ronin.
Beyond the performances, the cinematography stands out. Not only do we understand the layout of the titular I.S.S., but we get some beautiful framing to boot. As characters run, hide, and explore the ship, the cinematographer, Nick Remy Matthews, pulls out impressive moments. Cowperthwaite’s vision for the camera and editing pace help showcase the talent first, and the beautiful visual touches come along for the ride. This results in a performance-first feature with lush composition behind it.
While the questions asked by I.S.S. do not approach the levels of something like The Thing, the paranoia seeps into the story. It makes for a wonderful philosophical conundrum that is both gripping and fulfilling. For an independent feature to look this good and show this much promise, I.S.S. stands a good chance of finding its audience as a sleeper hit.