“I.S.S.” Proves that All’s Fair In Love, War, and Space

Ever since Star Trek first premiered in 1966, space has been known as “the final frontier.” And in a world ravaged with political violence, war, and genocide, this catchy descriptor may just be true. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s new sci-fi thriller I.S.S. explores the idea as astronauts from warring countries find themselves thrust into a life or death battle for the last remaining piece of unclaimed property. Dr. Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose) is the latest addition to a tight-knit crew of astronauts aboard the International Space Station. With numbers evenly split between Russian and American scientists, they have worked hard to maintain peace within the close quarters and shared equipment. But an act of war between their home countries puts this fragile comradery in jeopardy as each team leader receives instructions to take control of the Station at any cost. 

With filming completed before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I.S.S. takes on a new poignancy given the current geopolitical crisis. What could easily turn into nationalist propaganda becomes a nuanced call for unity and in intimate portrayal of the brutality of war. In an early scene, the crew sings along to Scorpions’ “Wind of Change,” a song inspired by the end of the Cold War and closely associated with the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Another moment shows all six astronauts gazing at the Earth from the station’s cupola while rhapsodizing about Earth’s lack of borders when viewed from a distance. Cowperthwaite wisely does not detail the actual cause of the conflict nor does she tell us what parts of Earth have been ravaged with nuclear blasts. Simply showing a red and burning planet is enough to tell us that international relations have been irrevocably changed. 

Set entirely in zero gravity, this film contains a fascinating authenticity that occasionally proves jarring. The actors were suspended with cables attached at the waist and float through the station struggling to find footholds in the strange environment. While certainly noteworthy, this  technical achievement and impressive acting feat becomes both a feature and a bug. It’s not only fascinating to watch, but Kyra’s adjustment to life in space allows us to watch her form important bonds with the other crew members. Deadly fight scenes feel fresh and interesting with this added complexity, but there’s no doubt that the slower motion robs some scenes of intensity. Nearly every moment of the film unfolds at the steady pace of zero gravity, giving the film a surreal quality that occasionally lacks drama. 

Fortunately, the tension comes from the claustrophobic setting and superb acting. The six-person cast is filled with powerhouse actors each firing on all cylinders. DeBose leads the ensemble as the rookie astronaut, a stoic, but stable presence in the rapidly devolving ecosystem. Chris Messina and Masha Mashkova charm as star-crossed lovers struggling with their nationalistic orders. Costa Ronin and John Gallagher Jr. each lean on their abilities to appear both sympathetic and sinister in plot twists that leave us guessing until the final act. But the film’s standout is undoubtedly Pilou Asbæk. With an enigmatic intensity, the Danish actor both endears and horrifies in a shockingly subtle performance that proves to be the heart of the film. 

Cowperthwaite wisely spends the first act allowing the characters to simply interact with each other. There are some awkward moments, mostly centered on the tight quarters and language barriers, but these thirty or so minutes are so enjoyable that we don’t want them to end. When war does break out, we feel the devastation along with the crew as friendships we’ve come to value are torn apart. With well developed characters, there are no pure villains save for the faceless order that sparks the conflict. Cowperthwaite frames each action, no matter how vile, as an understandable choice and I.S.S. ultimately becomes a bittersweet triumph of survival heavily overshadowed by those lost to devastating and irrevocable acts of war.

Jenn Adams is a writer, podcaster, and film critic from Nashville, TN. Find her social media nonsense @jennferatu.