Review: 'I.S.S.' is an old-fashioned thriller that fails to achieve a stable orbit

an astronaut floats in space as explosions can be seen on Earth behind them
Scene from the new space thriller "I.S.S." (Image credit: Bleecker Street)

The $150 billion International Space Station has been a floating fixture of the global space community since first opening its hatches to visiting astronauts in 2000. 

Now that iconic setting has become the star of "I.S.S.," a high-concept indie thriller from Bleecker Street in which the orbital laboratory becomes the focal point of a dangerous standoff between American and Russian spaceflyers after an unexplained nuclear melee between the two superpowers erupts far below.

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite ("Blackfish") brings a competent ensemble cast into simulated outer space, including Academy Award winner Ariana DeBose ("West Side Story"), but it's a shame that more time and effort wasn't put into researching how things operate aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The setup is intriguing enough, however, with the station being deemed a priority foothold for both warring countries, and instructions are delivered for each side to grab the base for their respective flag.

Joining DeBose are John Gallagher Jr., Chris Messina, Maria Mashkova, Pilou Asbæk, and Costa Ronin as two trios of astronauts and cosmonauts in the crosshairs of war.

Related: Watch the explosive new trailer for astronaut action film 'I.S.S.' (video)

Here's the official synopsis of "I.S.S.," which opened on Jan. 18:

"Tensions flare in the near future aboard the International Space Station (I.S.S.) as a worldwide conflict breaks out on Earth. Reeling, the U.S. and Russian astronauts aboard each receive orders from the ground: take control of the station by any means necessary." 

However, it's a Herculean task trying to accept the fact that these peaceful scientist-astronauts would be capable of cold-blooded murder and mayhem even in an all-out geopolitical crisis. That monumental suspension of disbelief is nearly insurmountable, and usually reserved for cheap made-for-cable TV movies of the '80s or '90s. The talented cast feels committed, however, and does their best with newbie screenwriter Nick Shafir's shallow, location-limited material. 

Poster for the new space thriller "I.S.S." (Image credit: Bleecker Street)

Character development is kept to an absolute minimum after the novelty of the initial setup and concept fades. In competent filmmaking, execution is everything, and "I.S.S." feels like it's adrift in undercooked mediocrity despite the creators' noble efforts. 

Real-life astronauts are a breed apart and consider their fellow voyagers as intimate family members — colleagues of a very tight-knit community, not as competing adversaries, no matter what dire situation unfolds. So it's a major stretch to consider that any of them might easily resort to homicide at high altitude.

Music composed for the project by Anne Nikitin is hauntingly original when it synthesizes with on-screen tensions and paranoia as astronauts are pitted against each other. Yet it often becomes overbearing, a grating distraction playing in direct opposition to the movie's natural rhythms.

Ariana DeBose suited up in "I.S.S." (Image credit: Bleecker Street)

Notable performances carry the film far into the last half hour, especially DeBose as Dr. Kira Foster and Asbæk — who portrayed the mad warlord Euron Greyjoy in HBO's "Game of Thrones" — as Russian cosmonaut Alexey Pulov. Asbæk provides a sturdy anchor for the rest of the ensemble cast, and it's nice to see him offering up his considerable charisma in an environment far removed from the Seven Kingdoms.

Production values are admirable across the board for the minuscule $13.8 million budget, with set designers using a minimum of real estate for the drama to play out. The main control hub set is interspersed with what might be actual footage of the cramped confines of the ISS, all used to great advantage in creating suspense and tension, amplifying the heated conflict within by highlighting the crew's orbital claustrophobia.

But audience members hoping for some deeper meaning or understanding beyond the typical "we're all in this together" aphorism may be disappointed, as the third act devolves into predictable melodrama and "I.S.S." gets slowly drained of any narrative juice. Carrying some shaky thermonuclear science, "I.S.S." suffers from a lack of clear focus in the conclusion, which won’t completely ruin the experience, but it does come up short on the satisfaction meter by shying away from any definitive outcome. 

The International Space Station witnesses nuclear armageddon in "I.S.S." (Image credit: Bleecker Street)

Regardless of its ailing attempt to convey the polarizing dilemma in a more captivating and original light, "I.S.S." doesn’t necessarily offend with its old-fashioned B-movie charm. While Cowperthwaite's feature fails to deliver on all fronts, it still manages to stay barely aloft thanks to its short 88-minute runtime, spirited cast, classic Scorpions ballad and contemplative premise.

When the irradiated smoke clears and the credits roll, there are simply too many questions left unanswered and no rewarding final resolution for "I.S.S." after an ambitious launch featuring a terrifying display of Earthly atomic might.

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Jeff Spry
Contributing Writer

Jeff Spry is an award-winning screenwriter and veteran freelance journalist covering TV, movies, video games, books, and comics. His work has appeared at SYFY Wire, Inverse, Collider, Bleeding Cool and elsewhere. Jeff lives in beautiful Bend, Oregon amid the ponderosa pines, classic muscle cars, a crypt of collector horror comics, and two loyal English Setters.