Astronauts Dr. Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose) and Christian Campbell (10 Cloverfield Lane’s John Gallagher Jr.) barely settle into their new posts aboard the I.S.S. before war breaks out on Earth. The shocking display of bombs peppering the stratosphere comes with covert orders to take control of the International Space Station by any means necessary, instantly sowing the seeds of mistrust and paranoia in a claustrophobic thriller that favors suspense over complexity or depth.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish), working from a script by Nick Shafir, helms the thriller with a lean efficiency that puts the claustrophobic paranoia at the forefront. Through audience proxy Dr. Foster, I.S.S. quickly introduces the already established crew accustomed to cohabitating in their zero gravity quarters that includes fellow American Gordon Barrett (Chris Messina, The Boogeyman) and Russians Weronika Vetrov (Masha Mashkova), Nicholai Pulov (Costa Ronin), and Alexei Pulov (Pilou Asbæk, Overlord). The broad brush strokes of how this group interacts and their personalities paint just enough of a picture to acclimate viewers before it is upended by secret missions.
This approach smartly keeps audiences at enough distance to form preconceived notions of archetypes and allegiances, with enough room for doubt and suspicion to heighten the escalating tension. For all the early revelry and merriment among astronauts welcoming their newcomers, Cowperthwaite casts the smaller moments with a suspicious eye to sow early seeds of foreboding.
The group collectively agrees to keep a level head when the war on Earth breaks out, undermined almost immediately by personalities and country allegiances, but, refreshingly, I.S.S. doesn’t quite take the obvious path. Betrayals and impulsive decisions plunge the station into a series of intense standoffs and violence, and it’s up to DeBose’s Kira Foster to navigate the tricky task of determining who she can trust to ensure survival once people start dying. DeBose is up to the task as the fish-out-of-water astronaut. There’s enough savvy and resilience that ensure rooting interest, matched by the vulnerability of learning the quirks of zero-gravity living. While Messina and Mashkova’s characters often act as the peacekeepers, Asbæk and Gallagher Jr. are the standouts for adding more nuance to their roles that make for fascinating wild cards. Asbæk brings Alexei’s inner moral conflict to the surface in compelling ways that heighten the thrills and keep you guessing.
It’s the solid performances, and Cowperthwaite’s ability to wring tension and claustrophobic dread from the station’s narrow spaces that surprises in I.S.S. Less effective is the surface-level concept that never ventures much further than the immediate narrative hurdle for protagonist Foster to clear before the next catastrophe arrives to threaten survival. While likely part of the point, questions of whether there’s even a home to go back to once the globe is set ablaze seem forgotten. That makes certain characters’ steadfast commitment to their mission slightly more contrived, as do some of the more thinly sketched motivations. The propulsive storytelling never stops to contemplate any of the lofty questions raised by its setup or choices made by some of the more impulsive characters.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing here. I.S.S. has no designs to offer anything more than a lean, efficient space thriller. Everything is in service to the immediacy of the thrills, with no extra frills or depth. While the foreshadowing is perhaps a bit too effective in parts, Cowperthwaite’s direction and a solid, committed cast ensure a briskly paced thriller that injects enough narrative surprises and well-staged standoffs to keep you invested and entertained throughout, even if the stakes are never quite as high as the setup suggests.
I.S.S. releases in theaters on January 19, 2024.