There’s something about January that just makes us crave movies about comically stupid aviation and space travel mishaps. Whether that stems from a sincere desire for post-holiday palette cleansers or Pavlovian conditioning from a lifetime of studios dumping their misfires in the first six weeks on the calendar is beside the point. This is the time of year that brought us the basic cable heroism of “Plane” and the joyless asininity of “Moonfall” and the wide spectrum of mediocrity that exists between them. In that sense, “I.S.S.” is just another entry in a proud cinematic tradition.
Documentarian-turned-narrative-filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite‘s new would-be blockbuster is the kind of film whose box office haul would have dwarfed the GDP of several developing nations had it been released in 1989 with Sylvester Stallone and Dolph Lundgren in the lead roles. The entirety of the contained thriller takes place on board the International Space Station, where a crew of Russian and American scientists work harmoniously on their various experiments for the good of mankind without paying much thought to earthbound geopolitical differences. That all changes when a massive war between the two nations breaks out on the ground, prompting both nations to instruct their crew members to take control of the station by any means necessary.
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The distressing news instantly scrambles the peaceful dynamic that the scientists (who were apparently not receiving updates about the war in Ukraine) had been enjoying. Dr. Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose), an organ regrowth specialist who fled a tumultuous personal life on Earth to focus on studying mice in zero gravity, is immediately conflicted. Alongside her American colleagues, she opts to pursue a collaborative solution in which nobody kills anyone else. But her best efforts to appeal to the crew’s shared humanity are underscored by the (correct) assumption that her Russian friends likely received their own instructions to take the ship.
In true ’80s movie fashion, the scheming Russian villains don’t regard the concept of human life nearly as highly. The trio of Alexey (Pilou Asbaek), Weronika (Masha Mashkova), and Nichola (Costa Ronin) quickly begin to suspect their shipmates of ulterior motives and don’t hesitate to make preemptive strikes. After one American draws the short straw that forces him to make a harrowing repair on the exterior of the station, the Russians reveal their hand and an all-out battle begins.
The film is one of the fresher concepts to emerge at the January box office in recent years (a backhanded compliment if there ever was one), and a tight first act does a lot to sell the “Cold War in Space” premise. The attempts at weightless cinematography are a far cry from “Gravity,” but the confined setting and competent performances help the film stand on its own as a small scale outer space thriller.
Unfortunately, the character development never hits hard enough for “I.S.S.” to transcend being a cool idea, rather than a cool movie. Nobody in the six-person ensemble cast is compelling enough to merit true emotional investment as either heroes or heels. The scientists never demonstrate enough chemistry as friends to make their descent into war shocking, and neither national contingency gels as a team worth supporting. By failing to tap into either ’80s patriotism or contemporary moral relativism, there just isn’t enough narrative meat to grasp onto.
Still, if Sundance isn’t your vibe and you’re all caught up on December releases, all 95 minutes of “I.S.S.” might scratch your itch for a January blockbuster. It comes with a level of absurdity that no self-respecting cinephile would tolerate in the other 11 months of the year, but could be exactly what you need to dull the pain of a painful NFL playoff loss.
If nothing else “I.S.S.” should leave viewers with one potent question that lingers long after the credits roll: Why on earth are we paying taxes to fund a Space Force if they can’t intervene to help with this?
A Bleecker Street release, “I.S.S.” is now playing in theaters.
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