Film Review: I.S.S. (Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite — World Premiere at Tribeca)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on June 13, 2023

in Film


— William Shakespeare

Orbiting high above our planet on the International Space Station – I.S.S. – an American scientist who recently returned to earth is being replaced by another, newbie scientist (a solid Ariana DeBose). She joins an established team of three Russian and three American (now including her) researchers to continue their work in space. A highlight of the trip is a new crew member’s first look through The Cupola, an I.S.S. observation dome that allows for spectacular, borderless views of our home in the galaxy. However, soon after this beautifully united view that’s enjoyed by the entire team, war breaks out between the United States and Russia. Upon the Americans receiving a mysterious message from the U.S. Government then losing ground contact, tensions soon grow onboard the I.S.S. Will these affable colleagues now declare war on each other and, if so, who will win?

While the set-up of screenwriter Nick Shafir’s taut script borders on the hokey, particularly that mysterious message, the hokiness stops there. What follows is an extremely well-plotted, expertly directed, beautifully shot and impressively performed thriller where the monster to be defeated is the fear and insecurity that can arise in human beings when confronted with a literal life or death situation. Shafir’s fast-moving yet layered script keeps us guessing – who the “bad guy” is keeps changing since “bad” continually proves to be relative. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s sure-handed direction artfully allows for moments of reflection, quiet and strategy amid the chaos. Ensemble performances are stellar across the board, especially Masha Mashkova’s heart-breaking Russian scientist who questions her trust in her family-like comrades and DeBose’s researcher who struggles to accept the impossible reality she now faces. Colin Patton’s lean editing is swift and precise, particularly his creation of a zero gravity fight scene. Geoff Wallace’s detailed production design effectively captures the oppressively claustrophobic environment onboard, which only worsens as relationships on the I.S.S. devolve. And you’ll never look a serrated kitchen knife in the same way again.

Even as the earth itself is being destroyed, humans continue to fight each other. While this edge-of-your-seat, roller-coaster ride of a film is hardly a “message movie”, there is an underlying, bigger picture thoughtfulness to the production that might be asking us to do some bigger picture thinking ourselves – before it’s too late.

stills courtesy of TIFF

for more screenings of I.S.S., visit Tribeca

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