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‘ISS’ Review: Ariana DeBose and Chris Messina in a Tense Thriller About Warring Astronauts



As the war in Ukraine creates ever growing tensions between the United States and Russia, it makes one wonder how it will affect the interpersonal dynamics among the astronauts on board the International Space Station. Do they ignore geopolitical strife and concentrate on their duties? Do they get into arguments over their countries’ respective positions? Or do they literally attempt to murder each other?

The last premise forms the basis of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s tense thriller receiving its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Nick Shafir’s screenplay (an entry in the 2020 Black List of the year’s best unproduced scripts) concerns six astronauts — three American, three Russian — working harmoniously together until war apparently breaks out between the two countries. The Americans received a message from NASA instructing them, “Your new objective is to take control of the ISS. By any means necessary.” The question is, did the Russian astronauts receive the same message as well?


The Bottom Line

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

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Narrative)
Cast: Ariana DeBose, Chris Messina, Pilou Asbæk, John Gallagher Jr., Masha Mashkova, Costa Ronin
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Screenwriter: Nick Shafir

1 hour 35 minutes

The answer becomes fairly clear after Gordon (Chris Messina) exits the spacecraft to perform a repair and things don’t go exactly as planned. It soon becomes apparent that his American colleagues Kira (Ariana DeBose) and Christian (John Gallagher Jr.) are engaged in a struggle for survival against their Russian counterparts Weronika (Masha Mashkova, For all Mankind), Alexey (Pilou Asbaek (Borgen, Game of Thrones) and Nichola Pulov (Costa Ronin, The Americans). Complicating matters is the fact that Gordon and Weronika have been engaged in a clandestine romantic relationship, something that’s presumably hard to pull off during a space mission.

The filmmaker, working in unfamiliar territory (she’s previously helmed the documentary Blackfish and the dramas Megan Leavey and Our Friend) does an excellent job ratcheting up the suspense for the necessarily claustrophobic thriller that benefits greatly from its novel setting. When characters frantically race through the space station’s surroundings, they’re suspended in mid-air, not running. And when violence eventually breaks out in the zero-gravity conditions, the resulting blood droplets that gush out float in the air like a Yayoi Kusama conceptual art installation.

Although the thin narrative doesn’t fully succeed in sustaining the film’s feature-length running time even at a relatively brief 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 particularly good in a quietly unnerving scene involving little more than the making of a sandwich.

Considering that her other screen acting has been confined mainly to musicals, it’s nice to see DeBose take on this role in a very different sort of film that provides the opportunity to show off her range. She delivers an excellent dramatic turn that is all the more effective for its restraint. Her fine efforts are matched by the rest of the ensemble, including Messina, who seems a ubiquitous onscreen presence these days, and Asbaek, who provides interesting shadings as the Russian astronaut conflicted about fulfilling his directive.

The relatively low-budgeted ISS lacks the high-octane excitement of such similar space-set thrillers Gravity, and it’s hard not to wish at times that it was a more lavish production. But the film works just fine as the sort of high-concept B-movie that used to be a mainstay of double features, even if it wouldn’t necessarily be an ideal recruiting tool for NASA.

Full credits

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Narrative)
Production companies: LD Entertainment
Cast: Ariana DeBose, Chris Messina, Pilou Asbæk, John Gallagher Jr., Masha Mashkova, Costa Ronin
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Screenwriter: Nick Shafir
Producers: Pete Shilaimon, Mickey Liddell
Executive producers: Mehrdod Heydari, Jacob Yakob, Michael Glassman, Joseph Yakob, Alison Semenza King
Director of photography: Nick Remy Matthews
Production designer: Geoff Wallace
Editors: Colin Patton, Richard Mettler
Costume designer: Robbie McKeithan
Composer: Annie Nikitin
Casting: Joseph Middleton

1 hour 35 minutes

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