I.S.S. review | The kind of solid, mid-budget thriller Hollywood doesn’t make anymore

I.s.s. review
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Trouble brews on board the International Space Station as war erupts on Earth. Here’s our I.S.S. review. 

Most of my cinematic education came from browsing VHS tapes at the Finnish equivalent of a Blockbuster (it was called FilmTown). I would look at the covers for ages, treating each rental like a choice between life and death. 

I.S.S. feels like a film I would have encountered back in the late 90s and early 2000s, and probably picked as well. It’s the kind of mid-budget thriller that rarely makes it to the big screen anymore, so watching I.S.S. in a cinema feels like a small victory in itself. 

Ariana DeBose plays Kira Foster, a scientist who’s shuttled up to the International Space Station; the crew on board is made up of three Russians and three Americans. 

It’s all going rather well at first, but I.S.S. would be a pretty lousy thriller if nothing went wrong. Kira observes as multiple nuclear explosions go off on Earth, and soon, the American Commander Gordon (Chris Messina) gets word that a war has broken out between Russia and America and the Americans must take control of the I.S.S., by any means necessary.

ISS ariana debose
Credit: Universal Pictures

Naturally, the astronauts assume that the Russians have been given the same orders, leading to a particularly paranoid atmosphere inside the claustrophobic station. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite really milks the setting of her film and I.S.S. is a consistently tense affair. 

The premise alone is simple but effective. The single-location setting and small cast work really well in I.S.S’ benefit. Cowperthwaite, who is known for the groundbreaking documentary Black Fish and Dakota Johnson weepie Our Friend, works wonders with a 96-minute runtime, something more directors should make note of. I.S.S. never outstays its welcome and while some plot developments feel a little familiar and predictable, it’s all thoroughly entertaining. 

DeBose, who picked up an Oscar for her performance in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, is a compelling lead. We experience most of I.S.S.’ plot through her, and as the latest crew member, her wide-eyed innocence works well here. Messina is reliable as Gordon who almost seems like the dad to the crew with his crappy jokes and a deep sense of duty. 

Pilou Asbæk also stands out among the Russian cosmonauts, but as you might expect, none of the characters seem to have any sense of history to them, nor does anyone really develop during the course of the film. Not that they really need to; I.S.S. is a condensed, time-conscious film, but the characters often feel thin, which makes it hard to root for them. 

I.S.S. also mostly stays out of politics. We’re not privy to what’s at the heart of the conflict on Earth, but the central theme seems to be, do you choose unity or divide, your colleagues or your country? Cowperthwaite introduces all these intriguing questions, but I.S.S. is mostly action-focused and the themes are left mostly unexplored. 

There’s still something incredibly appealing about I.S.S.. It’s shiny, pretty filmmaking; the visuals are impressive, even if some of the CGI shows the film’s limited budget. You simply don’t see films like this anymore. It’s simple and effective and it never takes itself too seriously. Cowperthwaite focuses on providing maximum entertainment with a minimalist setting and cast. 

I.S.S. is well worth your time. It probably won’t rock your world or stay with you for months on end, but it’s a film I will be revisiting many times over the years, I suspect. And is there any compliment higher than that? 

I.S.S. is in UK cinemas on the 26th April. 

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