“It’s good to hold onto something.” It’s a simple enough phrase, given early on from one veteran Russian cosmonaut on the International Space Station to a novice American astronaut there for the first time. It’s meant literally here: The newbie would do well to hold on to her surroundings as she acclimates to the weightlessness of space. When we hear it at the end of “I.S.S.,” though, it’ll mean something entirely different.
The I.S.S. itself is meant to be an international symbol of cooperation, and “I.S.S.,” directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (best known for the 2013 documentary “Blackfish”) from a screenplay by Nick Shafir, leans into that camaraderie — at least at first. Stories and drinks are shared between the three Americans and the three Russians on board as they welcome American Dr. Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose, finally getting to shine in a nonmusical role for once).
But news from home — along with some very bright flashes of light — upends everything: War has broken out worldwide. We’re shown that the Americans receive a simple directive from ground control: to take control of the station, by any means necessary. The question becomes: Did the Russians receive the same message? Oh, and the station’s propulsion system is damaged, giving everyone a literal countdown until it crashes back into the planet.
You can imagine what happens next: Paranoia sets in, loyalty is questioned, trust is broken — and then so is skin. It’s here where “I.S.S.” loses a bit of its footing: It shifts between horror and thriller seemingly at random, like it pulled from the films “Gravity” and “Life” in equal measure and then threw in a dash of space madness from “Sunshine.” It doesn’t quite jell all of the time.
But what it stumbles over thematically is more than made up for through sheer force of character from the ensemble cast, which includes Chris Messina, John Gallagher Jr., Maria Mashkova, Costa Ronin and Pilou Asbaek (the first two are the other American astronauts, the latter three the cosmonauts). While “I.S.S.” is a bit heavy-handed in its treatment of the Russians, their actors deliver nuance and believability, particularly Mashkova’s Weronika. Sympathy is easy to come by when it seems like everyone just wants to go home.
The small set, nearly always bound within the confines of the station, is claustrophobic, suffocating in a way that deliciously amps the tension. (The few scenes set outside the station offer their own sense of terror; floating in space will do that.)
That sense of dread pairs nicely with Nick Remy Matthews’ cinematography: A close-up of floating blood droplets captivates in a macabre sort of way; a knife becomes the focal point of what might be the most unnerving sandwich-making scene ever; the station’s internal camera footage adds a surprising touch of found-footage horror. (I have to say, though: I’m getting real sick of seeing lens flares in sci-fi movies.)
“It’s good to hold onto something.” That phrase, given as helpful advice in the film’s intro, is repeated as “I.S.S.” comes to its dramatic and confusing close. (I honestly couldn’t tell you how it all ends.) What it means now has become more metaphorical: not hand railings but rather faith, trust, hate, anger — anything to help you not float away in the dark abyss. “I.S.S.” may be a bit untethered, unsure of what it wants to be and what it wants to say, but it’s worth the voyage regardless.
Baez writes for The Seattle Times.