Review by Sean Boelman
I.S.S. is one of the highest-profile premieres at this year’s Tribeca, thanks to a combination of an A-list cast and a great, expansive premise. Although the film is somewhat predictable and straightforward, its charm lies in its simplicity, as it’s a lean, consistently entertaining thriller that takes advantage of its strong premise.
The movie follows a group of astronauts aboard the I.S.S. who — after an act of war between the United States and Russia — are pitted against one another, following orders to take control of the station by any means necessary. It’s a high-concept, tense thriller — something which we don’t see often anymore, but could connect well with audiences.
Coming in right around 90 minutes before credits, this is a tightly-paced film that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat the entire time. Although the story beats are somewhat predictable and you know the direction the movie is heading in, it still manages to be suspenseful thanks to Cowperthwaite’s adroit direction.
Admittedly, the script by Nick Shafir is very simplistic when it comes to its themes. The film asks some pretty straightforward questions about the dangers of patriotism, and offers answers that are perhaps a tad too black-and-white for its own good. It’s also unfortunate that — given that the film pits the U.S. against Russia — it will be read as a political statement when it was clearly designed to be more about the core humanity (or lack thereof) in the situation.
The character development is also somewhat weak, all of them being somewhat archetypal in nature. Although the movie manages to get its point across, it does so with characters that the audience doesn’t have much reason to care about. There simply isn’t enough time for their dynamic with one another to be the emotional crux, and they aren’t given a ton of backstory.
One of the most intriguing things about the film is how large of a scale it feels like it has despite what is clearly a small budget compared to many movies of the genre. Apart from a few sequences that feature space walks — the film is largely set within the corridors of a somewhat minimalistic set. Yet, Cowperthwaite manages to very successfully create a feeling of claustrophobia.
The movie also boasts an impressive cast that manages to elevate it beyond its somewhat simplistic writing. In the lead, Ariana DeBose gives an unfussy performance that impresses considering that she is largely known for being showy. Chris Messina, Pilou Asbæk, and John Gallagher Jr. are also all quite good. This is a true ensemble piece in that no one person dominates.
Cowperthwaite has come a long way since her origins in documentary filmmaking, now creating what is a stunningly effective thriller in I.S.S. Although the film is certainly simple, it’s hard to deny how entertaining it is.
I.S.S. screens at the 2023 Tribeca Festival, which runs June 7-18 in NYC and June 19 through July 2 online.