One thing you rarely see on the festival circuit is ambitious sci-fi, and when I read the blurb for thriller I.S.S. I was immediately curious and had to check it out at Tribeca. The film takes place on the international space station shared by the US and Russia in the not too distant future, shortly after a new American bio specialist (Ariana DeBose) has come aboard. When the crew begins to rise after a night of revelry from welcoming their new arrival they notice the sight of explosive plumes as nuclear weapons are detonated on the surface of the earth below. This is followed by an order given to the crew, from both countries, to “take the station at any cost” due its research into radioactive treatments. This has both teams of scientists challenged to decide what’s more important, country, or the hope and unity that science promises.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish) crafts an engrossing and taut sci-fi thriller that is shockingly relevant, given the current war in Ukraine. It manages to boil this apocalyptic story down to one of love, trust and betrayal. It’s these interpersonal conflicts crafted by the ensemble that not only captivates the viewer, but firmly invests us in this story and their fight for survival. As director Gabriela Cowperthwaite begins to turn the screws to the already tense situation, it causes some unexpected twists and turns as it is revealed there was an unsanctioned relationship between a Russian and an American Scientist that further complicates the situation. While the narrative and performances are expertly executed, the CGI and effects hold up surprisingly well on the modest budget.
Tucked snugly in a genre I’ve dubbed “Fuck Space”, I.S.S. is an anxiety fueled thriller that will keep you guessing from start to finish. Not since Gravity have I seen a film that filled me with both awe and apprehension, while merging drama and sci-fi so effortlessly, while not letting the otherworldly setting overwhelm the narrative. While the film makes sure to highlight the wonder of space, it also makes it terrifying clear emphasize the fragility of our being when tossed into the unforgiving black void. I.S.S is a mesmerizing chamber piece that could easily be the best sci-fi thriller of the year. The film lures you in with its hyper relevant premise and locks you with its script that feels plucked from the headlines aided by performances that drive it straight home.