In the space thriller I.S.S., Russia and the U.S. unleash nuclear war while the astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station watch from above. Then come the orders: take command from the other side, by any means necessary.
It’s a great premise from director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and writer Nick Shafir, one that is brought to life with effective visual effects and the talents of Ariana DeBose, Chris Messina, John Gallagher Jr., Masha Mashkova, Costa Ronin, and Pilou Asbaek. It’s also not as smart as it needed to be to fully deliver.
What begins as a U.S. vs. Russia standoff turns into a convoluted battle of wits and fists, with several characters’ motivations and actions not particularly clear. Relying on fuzzy logic and questionable decision making, Cowperthwaite and Shafir take what could and should have been a fairly straightforward thriller and turn it into something that takes some confusing shortcuts to get to its end goal.
All that aside, I.S.S. is a consistently suspenseful and largely entertaining piece of filmmaking (as long as you don’t think about things as hard as I did). Atmospheric and at times claustrophobic, the movie makes the most of what I assume is not a large budget, relying instead on the cast’s strong performances.
While well made, the movie is nonetheless a frustrating exercise in missed potential. I love short movies–I.S.S. is a lean and mean 95 minutes, thank you–and yet I wish more time had been spent developing the characters and their interrelationship dynamics before shit hit the fan. Shafir’s screenplay is more interested in the actions these characters would take than the emotions they would feel–there’s no dwelling on or incorporation of what you would assume would be absolute shock if you saw the Earth obliterated by nuclear war (and presumably the deaths of loved ones). There is no exploration of where the “take command” orders have come from, or really the ramifications of following said orders.
It’s not hard to envision a better movie lurking just below the surface, or hell, perhaps on the cutting room floor.
I.S.S. is a good early-year thriller with a killer concept and adequate execution; if you start to think about its shortcomings too much, however, you’ll realize this movie never fully lifts off.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.