There's something unnerving about science fiction thrillers that are set in space. A dark, unfamiliar location void of human life builds intrigue, and our desire for a lovable character's survival in an unworldly setting raises the stakes. Gabriela Cowperthwaite's I.S.S. is the latest feature to explore outer space. Though the film nails its setting and has a promising first half, it falls short of providing an engaging, creative narrative that stands out.
With only six astronauts together in a confined space —with three astronauts from the U.S.A. and three cosmonauts from Russia —the setup hints at conflict, a divide of countries, and an imminent fight for survival. This is confirmed after war commences between the two respective countries on Earth. The U.S.A. receives orders to take control of the I.S.S., while at the same time, viewers are left wondering if the Russian cosmonauts received the same memo from their superiors.
The first forty-five minutes of I.S.S. show promise as the characters are introduced. Each astronaut/cosmonaut is present to serve unique research purposes while aboard the space station, and the feature takes time to settle into the narrative while building up to the climax.
Ariana DeBose somewhat grounds the film with her portrayal of Kira, though the character is not fleshed out enough to build an emotional connection with the audience. Similarly, the other characters lack depth and aren't sufficiently unique to remain memorable. Apart from a few fleeting mentions of family back home, I.S.S. doesn't lay enough groundwork to grip viewers and make them care about the individuals onboard.
Pilou Asbæk is the film's standout, though confined to a storyline that doesn't fully embrace its "every person for themselves" theme nor allow him to explore Alexey's sinister presence after his manipulative nature is revealed. There are moments of tension as viewers speculate which characters are genuine vs. conniving. Still, I.S.S. rushes through reveals of betrayal instead of allowing those moments to build momentum and let the suspense fester.
Once the third act arrives, I.S.S. becomes a full-on caricature, as two characters fight in what can only be described as a Freddy vs. Jason head-to-head type ordeal. It's more comical than threatening and fails to capture the film's tone until that point. It's a shame I.S.S. didn't expand on character conflicts more, as it could have delivered effective sequences that leaned further into its mystery and paranoid thriller elements, which is when the film thrives most.
Cowperthwaite's directing works best when capturing life aboard the I.S.S., with realistic surroundings that immerse viewers in one location and extreme camera close-ups that allow claustrophobia to set in. However, the visual effects are a bit hit-and-miss. A few striking shots are sprinkled in as the I.S.S. cruises through space, though many scenes display substandard CGI.
I.S.S. boasts an engaging atmosphere aboard the spacecraft, but its short runtime fails to ignite a premise with much potential. Each character lacks the individuality to differentiate them from generic characters seen in similar scripts, and the film loses steam once the climax arrives.
But perhaps the most disappointing part of I.S.S. is the ambiguous ending, which never allows viewers to witness life (or lack thereof) back on Earth. While not every conclusion needs an explanation, with a premise that determines who survives and makes it back home, it feels necessary to know if the result of the mission has any payoff.