A good high concept for a genre flick can go a long way. Now, in some cases, it can actually be a double-edged sword, especially when the execution of said concept is only middling. I.S.S., one of the more genre-specific selections at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival, has better execution than that. However, the concept is so good, with so much potential, that seeing it almost do the bare minimum to succeed is frustrating. It’s a movie good enough to recommend, but one that should have been so much better.
I.S.S. has so many elements that should make it spectacular, the fact that it’s only solid is admittedly a bit of a letdown. The central conceit is great, the cast is strong, and the claustrophobic/confined nature of it all was a real recipe for success. No one bungles it here, but the creative forces do head straight towards the blandest and most generic options far more than you’d have hoped for.
Aboard the International Space Station (or I.S.S.) in the very near future, a group of American and Russian astronauts are going about their scientific business. Dr. Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose) is the newest addition to the U.S. team, alongside team leader Gordon Barrett (Chris Messina) and Christian Campbell (John Gallagher Jr.). On the Russian side, there’s Alexey Pulov (Pilou Asbæk), Weronika Vetrov (Masha Mashkova), and Nicholai Pulov (Costa Ronin). They live and work in harmony, at least until both sides get urgent messages from Earth. Apparently, some kind of world war event has taken place, complete with massive explosions they can see from orbit, and the two sets of astronauts receive identical orders: take control of the station by any means necessary.
Both sides keep this information a secret, but the bond of unity is immediately broken. As mistrust mounts, mistakes are made, putting everyone’s lives at risk. Paranoia and suspicion give way to sabotage, which leads to a body count. Will any of them be alive to find out just what is going on back on Earth?
Ariana DeBose leads a cast highlighted by fellow astronauts John Gallagher Jr., Masha Mashkova, and Chris Messina. This takes nothing away from Pilou Asbæk and Costa Ronin, both of whom are solid, but the others have a bit more to their characters. DeBose isn’t going to make you forget about West Side Story, but as the audience surrogate, she effectively puts you in the action. Gallagher Jr. gets to effectively crumble, while Mashkova is the conscience of the crew, with Messina trying to hold it all together as best he can.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite and writer Nick Shafir set things up incredibly well, even if they periodically drop the ball from there. Cowperthwaite uses effects well and has some arresting visuals, while Shafir’s core idea is brilliant. You just really wish more happened than the handful of events you’re expecting. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a lack of surprises, but it does keep you from seeing the full potential of the story.
I.S.S. is just good enough to warrant a recommendation, though I couldn’t shake the notion that it should have been even better. Tribeca has far worse titles, to be sure, but few wasted more potential than this one. So, while the positives do just outweigh the negatives, it’s ultimately much closer than it should be.