I. S. S. (Christian Movie Review)
About the Film
January to March is sometimes called a “dumping ground” for Hollywood’s less exciting movies. The upside to the “off season” is that, unlike the parade of high-spectacle comic book films or sequels, you never really know what you’re going to get. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish), I.S.S. reminds me of last year’s 65 (starring Adam Driver), a high-concept sci-fi story that lacks the bombastic scope of a summer blockbuster but is well-suited to scratch that post-Christmas cinematic itch. Is I.S.S. a must-see sci-fi classic? Perhaps not. But it is a well-crafted, slow-burn thriller that makes the most of its intriguing concept.
Set during the Cold War era, the story takes place entirely on the International Space Station, a shared space research station for six American and Russian scientists and astronauts. The mood on the station quickly changes when a nuclear war between the two countries erupts on Earth and both governments send urgent orders to take the station “by any means necessary.” Suddenly, the six colleagues find themselves in a tense, claustrophobic situation questioning what they must do and whom they can trust. Put that story premise into an IV and inject it straight into my bloodstream all day long. It’s a promising setup, and the filmmakers make a lot of smart choices to capitalize on it.
I.S.S. is a thriller rather than an action movie, a pressure cooker of slowly escalating tension. Much of that tension comes from the dread of anticipating what might happen rather than from high-adrenaline action sequences. From the moment the war on Earth begins, the situation on the space station is a ticking time bomb. Aided by an appropriately short runtime, the film maintains a feeling of unnerved anticipation.
The movie also uses the cramped setting of the space station to great effect. The visuals allow the audience to feel claustrophobic. The characters are trapped. When some characters are talking and scheming, there’s always the lurking danger that others may be just around the corner. The zero-gravity of the station adds a disorienting feeling, making traversing the ship slower, more cumbersome, and more dangerous.
Speaking of the characters, the story features a limited cast, focusing exclusively on the six I.S.S. residents. The first act adequately establishes their personalities and the friendship growing between them. None of the characters are explored with much depth, but they are developed enough for the audience to become invested in their fate. When the breakdown of trust emerges, it does not merely pit the “good guy” Americans against the “bad guy” Russians. Instead, each of the characters has motivations and influencing factors.
Ariana DeBose (West Side Story, Wish) does well in the lead role as Dr. Kira Foster. She’s charismatic and likeable but also flawed. She is smart and capable, but she is never forced into becoming an Ellen Ripley-type action hero. Instead, she responds to the situation in ways that a terrified, inexperienced astronaut likely would, making the story feel more believable.
I.S.S. is an effective sci-fi thriller that leans into its strengths and avoids overreaching or bogging the story down with needless flash and spectacle. With a runtime of just 1:35, I.S.S. doesn’t overstay its welcome or stretch its simple premise beyond the point of enjoyment. I think its R-rating (mostly due to language) is unnecessary, and the movie would have been no less effective as a more widely accessible PG-13 film. Even so, I enjoyed it for what it was.
Engage The Film
Human Nature v. Societal Influence
Some characters describe seeing Earth from the space station as an almost spiritual experience. The onlookers note how, from space, you don’t see any of the national borders that divide the world. Although not explicitly stated, there is also an implication that it is not just national borders but many other worldly divisions that separate people. Thus, the International Space Station is an idealistic picture of transcending the sins of a broken world. That idealism is challenged when the nuclear conflict breaks out below.
A central tension in the film is whether the idealistic unity of the space station will persevere or if it will reflect the conflicts of Earth. The space station residents may have left Earth behind, but they brought with them the same flawed and sinful human nature responsible for those problems. Driven by fear and selfishness, the bonds of friendship and trust quickly erode, and the situation brings out the worst in the characters.
While the utopian vision may fall apart, the film’s ultimate message is one of hope: people cannot escape from the pains of the world (not even in space). That is why we must continue to unite and trust one another. Near the end of the film, a character says, “It’s good to have something to hold onto.” He is specifically referring to some netting he provided for the experimental mice to keep them from miserably floating in zero gravity, but the words clearly have a double meaning. Life can feel like spinning around chaotically without gravity, which is why we need something (or someone) to grasp onto and steady ourselves.
In the Apostle Paul’s famous “neither Jew nor Gentile” passage (Galatians 3), he does not deny that such divisions of race, gender, and status exist. Rather, his point is that in a disorienting and divisive world, we need something to hold onto, namely Jesus. Obviously, I.S.S. doesn’t attribute a spiritual solution to the problem, suggesting instead a vague sense of shared humanity and goodwill, but the general point is agreeable. In a world bent on dividing people, we must put aside our fears and prejudice, rise above it, and hold onto something that transcends our differences.