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The Independent Critic

Ariana DeBose, Chris Messina, John Gallagher Jr., Maria Mashkova, Costa Ronin, Pilou Asbaek
Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Nick Shafir
Rated R
95 Mins.
Bleecker Street

 Movie Review: I.S.S. 
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If the question is "Can't we all just get along?," then the answer may very well be a resounding "No!" 

Directed by BAFTA nominated director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, I.S.S. maximizes an isolated sense of paranoia in placing itself about the International Space Station. It's a setting that seemingly transcends politics, Russians and Americans and others work cooperatively even when the world around them falls apart. It is into this setting that American Dr. Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose) arrives with Christian Campbell (John Gallagher, Jr.) to join the already present American Gordon Barrett (Chris Messina) and Russians Weronika Vetrov (Maria Mashkova), Alexy Pulov (Pilou Asbæk), and Nicholai Pulov (Costa Ronin). 

All is well, at least initially, as Dr. Foster prepares to study zero-gravity's  effect on regenerative medicine yet struggles to adapt to the unique environment in which she now finds herself. 

We're jarred early in I.S.S., the destabilizing uncertainty of this claustrophobic setting amplified by a lack of personal space and a language barrier that inherently causes tension. A sudden flash of light initially doesn't overwhelm, though it quickly becomes apparent that something has occurred back on earth and it doesn't take us much longer to realize that something involves conflict between the two world powers now represented in close confinement on I.S.S.

It's practically undeniable that I.S.S. will bring to mind the far more mega-budgeted Gravity. I'd argue that I.S.S. actually benefits from its relatively slight $20 million production budget as there's something grittier and more unstable about this film. The tension builds, amplified by messages from an enflamed earth demanding hostilities and establishing dominance over the space station "by any means necessary." There are so many possibilities here and it feels like in every moment that any of them and everyone of them could come to life. 

This tension never really dissipates, Anne Nikitin's industrial-tinged original score practically ringing through our bodies throughout and Nick Remy Matthews' lensing always keeping us off balance yet intimately intertwined. Editing by Colin Patton and Richard Mettler lingers in all the right moments and demands we pay attention. We feel nearly constantly tense yet never completely overwhelmed by it all. 

We've mostly known DeBose for her buzzier musical work up to this point, however, here's she's slower, steadier, and far more thoughtful. While I may have wished for a bit more character development, it's electrifying to see DeBose really stretch herself here and show off a different acting muscle. It's incredibly good work and should lead to even more. 

Chris Messina captivates as Gordon, his relationship with his Russian counterparts a bit more established but we quickly wonder if that even matters. Gallagher also really impresses as Christian especially toward the film's end. 

It's certainly arguable that Pilou Asbæk has the meatiest role among the Russians and he makes the most of it. Costa Ronin shines as his counterpoart and sibling aboard the space station. Maria Mashkova gives the film a much needed emotional resonance as "Nika," a morally conflicted young woman who does what she can to live into all the greatest ideals of the I.S.S. 

In our current time, it's impossible to watch I.S.S. without seeing and feeling its current relevance. We're living in a rather scary time and I.S.S. not so gently nudges us to realize what catastrophe awaits if we surrender to our fears. 

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic