'ISS' review: Ariana DeBose and Chris Messina in tense thriller about astronauts at war

‘ISS’ review: Ariana DeBose and Chris Messina in tense thriller about astronauts at war

As the war in Ukraine creates ever-increasing tensions between the United States and Russia, one wonders how it will affect the interpersonal dynamics between astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Do they ignore the geopolitical conflict and focus on their duties? Do they get into discussions about their countries’ respective positions? Or are they literally trying to kill each other?

The last premise forms the basis of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s taut thriller which receives its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Nick Shafir’s screenplay (an entry on the 2020 Black List of the year’s best unproduced screenplays) concerns six astronauts – three Americans, three Russians – who work harmoniously together until war breaks out between the two countries. The Americans receive a message from NASA instructing them: “Your new goal is to take control of the ISS. By any means necessary.” The question is, did the Russian astronauts also get the same message?

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The bottom line

It turns out that in space they can hear you scream.

Place: Tribeca Film Festival (fiction spotlight)
Launch: Ariana DeBose, Chris Messina, Pilou Asbæk, John Gallagher Jr., Masha Mashkova, Costa Ronin
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Screenwriter: Nick Shafir

1 hour and 35 minutes

The answer becomes quite clear after Gordon (Chris Messina) exits the ship to perform a repair and things don’t quite go as planned. It soon becomes apparent that her American colleagues Kira (Ariana DeBose) and Christian (John Gallagher Jr.) are in a fight for survival against their Russian counterparts Weronika (Masha Mashkova, For everyone Humanity), Alexey (Pilou Asbaek (The castle, game of Thrones) and Nichola Pulov (Costa Ronin, THE Americans). Complicating matters is the fact that Gordon and Weronika have been involved in a clandestine romantic relationship, something that is presumably difficult to pull off while on a space mission.

The director, who works in unknown territory (she has already directed the documentary Black fish and dramas Megan Leavey AND Our friend) does a great job ramping up the suspense for the necessarily claustrophobic thriller that benefits greatly from its new setting. When the characters are running frantically around the space station, they are suspended in mid-air, not running. And when violence finally breaks out in the conditions of zero gravity, the resulting droplets of blood float in the air like a conceptual art installation by Yayoi Kusama.

While the subtle storytelling fails quite to sustain the film’s feature length even at a relatively short 95 minutes, Shafir’s screenplay provides enough twists and turns to maintain interest. While the characterizations aren’t particularly deep, the actors do their best to fill in the blanks. Gallagher Jr. and DeBose are especially good in a quietly unnerving scene that involves little more than making a sandwich.

Considering his other film acting has been confined mostly to musicals, it’s great to see DeBose take on this role in a very different kind of film that provides an opportunity to showcase his range. He delivers an excellent dramatic turn that is all the more effective at moderating him. His fine efforts are matched by the rest of the ensemble, including Messina, who seems like an omnipresent screen presence these days, and Asbaek, who provides interesting nuances as the Russian astronaut conflicts about fulfilling his directive.

The relatively low budget ISS it lacks the high-octane excitement of similar space-set thrillers like Severity, and it’s hard not to sometimes wish it was a more lavish production. But the film works perfectly well as the kind of high-octane B-movie that was a mainstay of double features, even if it wouldn’t necessarily be an ideal recruiting tool for NASA.