‘I.S.S.’ Review: Claustrophobia And Tension Abound In New Space Thriller


It’s no news that the deep dark void of space is terrifying. We don’t know much about what lurks past our own atmosphere, and the horror genre has cleverly played with such a fact. In her new film I.S.S., director Gabriela Cowperthwaite tackles the horrors of space from a new perspective. This time, there’s no extraterrestrial threat. Instead, a group of American and Russian astronauts must grapple with a world-altering event unfolding on the ground as they float through space in the International Space Station (or I.S.S.).

Dr. Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose) and Christian Campbell (John Gallagher, Jr.) are two astronauts heading to the I.S.S. in the name of science. Once they arrive, they meet their American colleague Gordon Barrett (Chris Messina) and the Russian crew: Weronika Vetrov (Masha Mashkova), Nicholai Pulov (Costa Ronin) and Alexey Pulov (Pilou Asbæk). At first, they all form a tentative but playful bond, one made stronger by isolation and a shared love of science. Early on, it’s made clear that the crewmates don’t discuss politics. Such discussions would ruin their camaraderie, so they choose to ignore wider cultural issues in the name of peace. In space, no one can hear you argue.

But of course, that vow to avoid politics crumbles as the crew discovers a nuclear attack has occurred on Earth. From up above, they helplessly watch as huge swaths of the world are burning, the tranquility of space no longer a comfort. Now, each crew is given a directive from their respective home countries: take control of the space station by any means necessary. Sorry, buds, but that rule of no politics has been thrown out of the proverbial window; war has now extended past our atmosphere.

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If that sounds like your worst nightmare, strap in because it just keeps getting worse. What ensues is over an hour of claustrophobic tension as the crew’s paranoia builds and their attempts to survive get more desperate. Cowperthwaite taps into the primal instincts of human nature, as well as the horrors of distrusting your fellow man, to propel I.S.S. towards a harrowing conclusion. It’s an impressive chamber piece that uses low gravity and the tiny halls of a space station to weave a very possible horror story about the state of the world.

While the film is packed with tension, I.S.S. does start to drag in the middle and becomes a bit repetitive in its structure of identifying a potential traitor and dealing with that singular threat. It’s disappointing because much of the film is quite literally propulsive in its action, but the uneven pacing is what keeps this space thriller from reaching its full potential.

Plus, it feels like a bit of a disservice to the point of the film to not more deeply engage with the current sociopolitical climate. Tensions between Russia and the United States aren’t new, but the current conflict in Ukraine is, and while there’s no need for it to be a central discussion point, it feels strange to not further interrogate international relations in a film that is about international relations. This is another instance of a film trying to dodge politics while forgetting that its entire existence is because of political strife.

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Regardless, with a rather small budget of $13 million (at least for a feature set entirely in space), Cowperthwaite and her team make this feel like they’re really filming in space. Nick Remy Matthews‘ cinematography and the effects work make I.S.S. feel much more expensive. One particular scene involving Chris Messina navigating the outside of the ship is both gorgeous and heart-stopping as he slowly climbs across the station’s exterior. If anything, I.S.S. joins Godzilla Minus One in films that stretch their (relatively) smaller budgets to extraordinary technical heights.

Of course, the ensemble cast is also stellar, especially DeBose and Asbæk (with a special shout out to Messina’s dad ‘stache). DeBose embodies the nervous yet excited scientist who doesn’t want to reveal her hand too quickly. Meanwhile, Asbæk leans into his career of playing the evil guy to twist viewer expectations. The entire cast has great chemistry that sells the tension and the tragedy of humanity’s division due to politicians’ egos.

Overall, I.S.S. is a technically gorgeous film that will have your stomach in knots. There are a few missteps in terms of pacing and its political message, no doubt, but it’s still an impressive piece of filmmaking. If space thrillers are your jam, then jump in the rocket and strap in because Cowperthwaite is ready to take you on a wild ride.



‘I.S.S.’ is a technically gorgeous film that will have your stomach in knots.



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