Space… the final frontier. The vastness beyond the confines of planet Earth continues to fascinate mankind. After thousands of years of extensive exploration, we’ve yet to truly scratch the proverbial surface of the mysteries of the universe, so we continue to search for answers and understanding. It explains why we cannot get enough of stories taking place in the distant skies, from the expansive Star Trek universe to more bizarre offerings like the space thriller Moonfall. While depicting the Moon as a manufactured structure (made by ancient, space-traveling humans, no less) that threatens to obliterate life on Earth is rather ridiculous and convoluted, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s I.S.S. takes a more grounded yet intriguing approach within the sci-fi cinema scope.

The disaster thriller’s premise promises an imaginative and intense fight for survival and victory. While I.S.S. delivers aesthetically, its storytelling ship frequently veers towards predictable checkpoints that never allow it to fully take off. 

Ariana DeBose stars as Dr. Kira Foster, a scientist who finds herself (and her literal lab rats) onboard the International Space Station with five other astronauts in what seems to be the near future. Two of them—homesick dad Christian Campbell (John Gallagher, Jr.) and seasoned resident Gordon Barrett (Chris Messina)—are fellow Americans. The other three occupants are Russian scientists Weronika Vetrov (Masha Mashkova), Alexy Pulov (Pilou Asbæk), and Nicholai Pulov (Costa Ronin). So, there’s an even split among the two nations. Everyone mostly gets along and doesn’t have to deal with the social strife back on Earth… or so they thought.

We get some slice-of-space-life activity and tidbits about Foster’s lonely existence along with a romance across political boundaries. There’s obvious foreshadowing, like when Alexy warns Kira that putting mice into this strange environment “doesn’t end well,” but whatever. Things go awry when a war breaks out between Russia and the US, which they witness from above. Gordon gets a message from below that they must take over the ISS by any means necessary. Of course, he quietly (and accurately) assumes that the Russians got the same orders. This gives way to divided loyalties, moral questions, and a healthy serving of distrust within this confined and frighteningly remote locale. (Don’t think about this too much or you won’t be able to suspend your disbelief. It’s a movie, friend.)

Ariana DeBose in an astronaut suit in the I.S.S. trailer
Bleecker Street

From a cinematic perspective, Cowperthwaite and cinematographer Nick Ramy Matthews rise to the challenge of creating a claustrophobic and anxiety-inducing environment. Scenes inside the ISS are tightly shot, leaving the viewer searching the edges of each frame for impending danger. Blood droplets dance in the air as a sombering signal that humanity will always be its own worst enemy. It’s a gorgeous film that fully maximizes its indie budget. However, I.S.S. never fully delivers on its promise of pulsing action at the peak of its tension ramp up. A lean 95-minute runtime somehow still feels lengthy because, well, there’s simply not enough material to sustain it. 

Several plot twists offer just enough to keep the viewer engaged but, at times, pivotal moments trudge through well-trod territory. The cast makes the most out of thin at best (and achingly stereotypical at worst) characterization, with DeBose deftly showcasing her range outside of musical fare. In less capable thespian hands, I.S.S. would have gone from a fairly entertaining flick to space junk.

Cowperthwaite’s exploration of moral compass, paranoia, and responsibility is an unsettling reflection of the plethora of ongoing terrestrial battles that threaten to tear the collective us apart. And the film’s ending leaves much room for reflection about the survivors future… and our own.

I.S.S. hits theaters on January 19.