Review: Oscar winner Ariana DeBose excels in 'I.S.S.'

They say in space no one can hear you scream.

January 19, 2024, 4:10 AM

They say in space, no one can hear you scream. That's not the case in "I.S.S." -- short for International Space Station -- a futuristic thriller now in theaters where the terror doesn't come from an oozing, toothy, belly-busting alien but the messy loyalties that divide us inside.

"West Side Story" Oscar winner Ariana DeBose excels as astronaut Kira Foster, a rookie aboard the I.S.S. occupied by two fellow Americans -- Gordon Barrett (Chris Messina) and Christian Campbell (John Gallagher Jr.). They mirror a trio of Russian cosmonauts -- Weronika Vetrov (Masha Mashkova), Alexey Pulov (Pilou Asbæk) and Nicholai Pulov (Costa Ronin ).

Forced to occupy the same snug area, the six explorers -- no politics please, we're scientists -- get along nicely. Gordon is clearly getting it on with Weronika -- those looks, those eyes -- making a strong case for international relations. The whole crew even does a singalong to the Scorpions "Wind of Change." What could disturb such cozy togetherness?

PHOTO: A scene from the movie "I.S.S."
A scene from the movie "I.S.S."
Bleeker Street

How about the pesky nuclear war that just broke out between the U.S. and Russia? The deadly explosions on Earth are visible from the station. To add to the drama, each of the teams has received a top-secret message: "Take control of the station by any means necessary."

As the cliche handbook would have it, conflict ensues. It's lucky that director Gabriela Cowperthwaite ("Blackfish," "Megan Leavey"), working from a long-unproduced Black List script by Nick Shafir, knows how to build tension. At least for starters.

Maintaining the dread is the hard part. As the two sides indulge in zero-gravity fistfights, stabbings and various betrayals conducted in the name of blind nationalism, the pileup of banalities work against sustaining a rooting interest.

That said, the actors do their damnedest. Messina, the comic MVP as the apoplectic sports agent in "Air," fills out an underwritten role like the nuanced pro he is. And when he puts on a spacesuit to repair a broken (or is it?) Russian communications antenna, we catch our breath even when we know exactly what's going to happen.

Asbæk, who played Euron Greyjoy on "Game of Thrones," goes beyond his cosmonaut's ready intimidation to find deeper sensitivities. And Gallagher, so good on "The Newsroom" and "Olive Kitteridge," invests his homesick astronaut with sinister undertones that never fail to intrigue.

PHOTO: A scene from the movie "I.S.S."
A scene from the movie "I.S.S."
Bleeker Street

DeBose shows real acting chops outside the musical genre. We feel her confusion when Mashkova, in a finely judged portrayal, uses the feminine bond between Weronika and Kira to negotiate a truce amid the insanity of male destruction raging around them.

All credit to Cowperthwaite for her efforts at keeping hope alive in a claustrophobic setting that only adds to the tension between opposing sides, though she oversells the too-simplistic message that borders are the enemy of humanity and eventual peace.

Much is made of the "Overview Effect," the sense of awe instilled in us when viewing tiny Earth from vast space. "I.S.S." gets the visuals right, thanks to the artistry of cinematographer Nick Remy Matthews, but it lacks the scope, at 95 minutes, to achieve a genuine depth of character.

My advice? Lower your expectations. "I.S.S." is lightyears from such classic space explorations as "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Gravity" and "Interstellar." Your best bet is to settle in for a mild ride that is better than you might expect but way short of the wonder it so wants to inspire.