Early in “ISS,” the new thriller directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite set on the International Space Station, three Russian cosmonauts hum “Wind of Change” by the German band Scorpions. The 1991 power ballad was largely associated with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. As the cosmonauts sing, full of nostalgia and emotion, they are gently scolded by their American counterparts (a trio of astronauts), but the mood is cheerful.
The Cold War is a thing of the past, and cosmonauts and astronauts aboard the International Space Station have formed an international Russian- and English-speaking family working side by side on their research. Thanks to the dome, they can see the view of the Earth, where there are no visible boundaries. But this sense of unity remains in a delicate balance. The space station may be in orbit around the Earth, but it is still an extension of “the one below.” What happens there is reflected on the ISS, a concept explored in this quiet but gripping thriller.
Ariana DeBose stars as Kira, the new kid on the space station, engaging in a unique and close-knit dynamic between the Russian and American crew. Their carefully calibrated social ecosystems are thrown into question after the group witnesses a nuclear attack of some kind on the planet, in which orange flames engulf the entire continent. Both the Americans and the Russians are separately instructed to seize control of the space station by any means necessary, and suddenly every conversation, every action, becomes loaded with meaning: is there still a fragile harmony, or is it all a manipulation?
“ISS,” written by Nick Shafir, is more chamber play drama than action movie, with a story that reduces global issues to a miniature microcosm and draws on deep human emotions to motivate characters: love, fear, impulsivity, courage. As an outsider, Kira has unease and serves as a viewer avatar on the ship, but Shafir also brings “Romeo and Juliet” into this story; A secret love and the great emotions surrounding it power much of the drama.
Created by Geoff Wallace’s production design, the space has a sense of authenticity and realism as it resembles a real place where people live for a long period of time. They also achieved the zero-gravity look, with actors performing on ropes with digitally erased lines (though sometimes the look of the harness could be seen at the attachment point of their pants). At 95 minutes, there is an efficiency in craftsmanship as well as storytelling; Richard Mettler and Colin Patton’s tight editing places the viewer well within the space and keeps the information small but clear.
What to Watch?
The latest from Tribune critics on what movies and television you should watch.
Cowperthwaite’s mastery and excellent direction of the cast brings to life the cold anxiety that fills every interaction and heightens the tension in this claustrophobic space. The saddest scene in the movie is when two crew members are just making sandwiches.
While DeBose is positioned as the star and hero of the film, the actors surrounding him make the film interesting; these include Chris Messina and Costa Ronin as rival commanders and John Gallagher Jr. as characters occupying ever-shifting spaces of credibility. and Pilou Asbaek. Masha Mashkova proves to be the heart of the story. DeBose is more stoic, his character cautious but also a little guileless. Although Kira comes across as overly cautious, she is a little slow to fully understand the small-scale war going on on the space station.
“ISS” is a story of big political ideas and drama, driven by human emotions and behavior. It’s a reminder that our peace is often tenuous, too easily torn apart even among our neighbors and friends, and that wars that take place far, far away happen to us all. It’s a surprisingly effective story for what seems like a light genre thriller, but then again, genre thrillers can be the best vehicles for such messages.
“ISS” — 3 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: R (for some violence and language)
Running time: 1:35
How to watch: In theaters January 19