The Movie Waffler New Release Review - I.S.S. | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - I.S.S.

I.S.S. review
As nuclear war rages on Earth, the American and Russian crews of the International Space Station are pitted against one another.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Starring: Ariana DeBose, Chris Messina, Pilou Asbaek, John Gallagher Jr., Costa Ronin, Masha Mashkova

I.S.S. poster

The International Space Station is one of those rare examples where nations can put aside their differences and work together towards a common good (or a common bad even). While their leaders on the ground butt heads, American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts work in harmony in the heavens. Do they actually get along though? Or do both parties begrudgingly accept that they have to work and live together?

I.S.S. gives us a crew of astronauts and cosmonauts who enjoy a cordial relationship that even extends to a secret romance between two parties. That's until a catastrophic event on Earth reminds them that they're on opposing sides, and the tin can they so happily shared becomes a battleground.

I.S.S. review

Astronauts Kira (Ariana DeBose) and Christian (John Gallagher Jr.) arrive at the ISS and are greeted by their American commanding officer Gordon (Chris Messina) and their Russian opposites Weronika (Masha Mashkova), Nicholai (Costa Ronin) and Alexey (Pilou Asbaek). All six hit it off to varying degrees, though Alexey is somewhat standoffish with his American colleagues. They get drunk together on liquor that floats through the station in bubbles and enjoy a rather on-the-nose singalong to The Scorpions' mullets and lighters classic 'Wind of Change'. Gordon and Weronika make googly eyes at one another. They all respect each other as professionals. Looking at the Earth from above they note how there are no visible borders. Weronika teaches Kira the Russian translation of "What's most important is that we stick together."

This friendly dynamic falls apart when, just as in the cult '80s sci-fi thriller Def-Con 4, the ISS crew observes a nuclear war devastate the planet below. Both parties receive the same command from their superiors: their nations are now engaged in a full-on nuclear war and the station must be seized by any means necessary.

I.S.S. review

It's often said of movies from 50+ years ago that "It wouldn't get made now," but the same might be argued for I.S.S. The film was shot before Russia's invasion of Ukraine led to a shunning of all things Russian in the western world, and its belated release is likely a result of cold feet regarding how to market a movie with sympathetic Russian characters. Had the film been made later it probably wouldn't be hugely different, but there would certainly be subtle distinctions. I imagine the Russian dialogue wouldn't be subtitled, that the cosmonauts would be "othered" as one-note villains in a way they aren't here. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and writer Nick Shafir present both sides of this intimate conflict as we're made privy to the secret conversations of both parties. There's no consensus within either group as to whether they should obey their orders. Some feel they can trust their opposites while others are intensely paranoid, and in some cases it's this paranoia rather than any real threat that leads to violence.

The film is guilty of indulging in some well-worn space movie tropes. We get the obligatory scene where a crew member has to don a suit and fix a fault on the outside of the station, but it lacks the suspense of say the sabotage scene in 2001 because it comes at a point where the true intentions of the opposing party haven't yet been made clear. What we get is a shock rather than sustained suspense. We don't know the bomb is under the table until it goes off. Hitchcock is groaning in his grave. We also know that at some point the life support systems will fail, leading to a countdown scenario.

I.S.S. review

Conversely there are some ideas that feel fresh, particularly regarding the absence of gravity. There's a scene in which two crew members engage in a fight armed with a drill and a knife, but the weightlessness makes it extremely difficult to engage in a hand to hand brawl. At other points however the film seems to conveniently forget about the gravity issue: one scene builds tension regarding two parties eyeballing a kitchen knife that somehow remains flat on a counter-top without floating away.

I.S.S. does a good job of making us believe that highly intelligent people are above the squabbles of their nations, but it's not so convincing when it has to disrupt this dynamic. One of the characters suddenly becomes a cold-hearted killer while another has a highly unconvincing final act heel turn that's shoehorned in for the sake of one last bit of conflict. The cast acquit themselves well and it's refreshing to see Russians actually played by Russians (Asbaek aside) in a western production. Ultimately however, for all the commentary on the silliness of our earthly disputes, I.S.S. descends into a rather by the numbers space thriller.

I.S.S. is in UK/ROI cinemas from April 26th.

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