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‘I.S.S.’ Review: Ariana DeBose and Chris Messina Lend Gravitas



“Indie sci-fi thriller” aren’t words we get to say often enough, even if the reason why is obvious: Making aliens, rocket ships, and the cold vacuum of space look real is expensive. Tribeca Film Festival offering “I.S.S.” avoids that issue by taking place entirely aboard the International Space Station, which becomes the staging ground for a proxy war when a nuclear conflict breaks out between America and Russia. That premise wouldn’t have been out of place in a collection of short stories by Ray Bradbury, and “Our Friend” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, working from a Black List script by Nick Shafir, comes close to maximizing its potential with help from a stellar ensemble led by Ariana DeBose and Chris Messina.

The six-member crew is evenly divided among astronauts and cosmonauts: Dr. Kira Foster (DeBose), Gordon Barrett (Messina) and Christian Campbell (John Gallagher Jr.) on one side, Weronika Vetrov (Maria Mashkova), Alexey Pulov (Pilou Asbæk of “A Hijacking” and “Game of Thrones”) and Nicholai Pulov (Costa Ronin of “The Americans”) on the other. Their loyalties aren’t as clearly defined as you might imagine, in part because all involved try to treat the I.S.S. as a politics-free zone, but also because two of them are not-so-secretly romantically involved. Kira, a biologist, is the latest to arrive, and she’s brought her mice with her.

We learn a lot about her early on, first from how tender she is with the creatures she’s experimenting on and then from the fact that she doesn’t feel the “overview effect”: a profound shift in perspective experienced by astronauts who’ve had the privilege of viewing Earth from space. Consider this quote from astronaut Mike Massimino, which seems to sum up the experience: “I thought at one point, if you could be up in heaven, this is how you would see the planet. And then I dwelled on that and said, no, it’s more beautiful than that. This is what heaven must look like. I think of our planet as a paradise. We are very lucky to be here.” Well, yes and no.

“I.S.S.” isn’t subtle in its foreshadowing of what’s to come, but it is effective. If it seems ominous when Alexey tells Kira that “it does not end well” when mice are brought aboard the space station and placed in a small enclosure together, well, that’s because it’s meant to be. Ditto an argument that breaks out that same night between him and Gordon about the Scorpions song “Wind of Change.” (Whether or not that power ballad inspired by a visit to the Soviet Union was actually written with input from the CIA is the subject of a popular podcast.) It’s while Kira does a bit of earth-gazing that any and all suspicions you might have are realized, as what she initially mistakes as a series of volcanic eruptions are actually massive explosions courtesy of America and Russia.

When Gordon receives orders from Houston to take control of the I.S.S. by any means necessary, he can only assume his Russian counterparts have been told the same thing. The question thus becomes who will strike first and whether mutually assured destruction will follow, with every seemingly mundane interaction ratcheting up the tension — was there something sinister behind the look Nicholai just gave Kira, and do any of them really believe their counterparts are capable of doing what their government has demanded of them? It depends on whom you ask: Christian is more distrustful of the Russians than Kira is, which also makes him more willing to act.

DeBose, in her first silver-screen role since winning an Oscar for “West Side Story” last year (she has three more slated for release this year), lends appropriate gravitas to her character while also acting as an audience surrogate — her disbelief at what’s happening is meant to mirror our own, as though slowing down and taking stock of the situation will surely reveal it was all a misunderstanding and things haven’t escalated as far as they have. As appealingly dread-inducing as that setup is, the internecine conflict that inevitably follows from it can’t help feeling familiar, even pedestrian, by comparison. Audiences will have seen most of these story beats, and though the performances are uniformly exceptional, the belligerents never feel like wholly original characters. But while the landing isn’t as smooth as might be hoped for after the exemplary first act, neither does “I.S.S.” burn up on reentry — it just makes one feel a little like Kira looking at Earth and wishing she felt more strongly about it.


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