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Orbit of Betrayal: I.S.S. Unveils an Intense Cosmic Drama

An astronaut sitting in a space station
Ariana DeBose in Bleecker Street's I.S.S. | Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street

By Amylou Ahava

The ISS, an engineering marvel and symbol of international collaboration, becomes the setting for an intense narrative set against the backdrop of real-world events (notably the Russian invasion of Ukraine). Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s direction (Blackfish) propels this space drama into an orbit of thought-provoking exploration, where the space station transforms from a hub of scientific cooperation into a microcosm of global conflict.

So, let’s now embark on an otherworldly journey with I.S.S. where space now echoes the fragility of diplomatic relations, and the International Space Station stands as a solitary and isolated battlefield. Under the skillful direction of Cowperthwaite and propelled by Nick Shafir's compelling screenplay, this space thriller invites viewers to delve into unexplored realms of solitude and celestial beauty. Get ready to float in the weightlessness of suspense, where the ISS becomes a location for an international war. 

The film unfolds aboard the ISS where American astronauts Dr. Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose), Gordon (Chris Messina), and Christian (John Gallagher Jr.) find themselves alongside Russian cosmonauts Weronika (Masha Mashkova), Nicholai (Costa Ronin), and Alexey (Pilou Asbaek). At first the six weightless researchers enjoy each other’s company and revel in drinks and jokes, but shortly after arriving at the space station, Dr. Foster witnesses a world-shattering event. And while Russia and the USA settle their issues with bombs down on Earth, the three astronauts and three cosmonauts now receive new orders which involves the destruction of the other crew members and to take over the space station using any means necessary. The decision to maintain a minimal cast (with DeBose leading a diverse ensemble) enhances the film's intensity. Each character becomes a crucial player in the cosmic drama as it unfolds, which prevents any one star from outshining the rest of the cast.

As we navigate the confined corridors of the ISS, the film explores not just the vastness of the cosmos but also the intricate dynamics of the human psyche as the crewmembers find themselves in a scenario echoing the complexities of the Prisoner's Dilemma. The American crew (led by Dr. Kira Foster) receives an ominous order to take control of the space station, even if it means killing the Russian cosmonauts. They assume the Russians received a similar message, but despite the close confines, the two groups either refuse or lack the linguistic abilities to communicate with each other.

A space station floats as the Earth explodes
A still from Bleecker Street's I.S.S. | Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street

In this situation, if the two crews would cooperate, they would all survive, but without knowing what the cosmonauts are planning, the astronauts face a choice between collaboration for the greater good or betraying their counterparts as a means of survival. The space station itself transcends its physical confines. It becomes a character in its own right, as it plays a vessel carrying not just astronauts but also the weight of geopolitical tensions and the fragility of human relationships. The limited corridors of the ISS (and add in the endless weightlessness of space) heighten the stakes, as the claustrophobia of moral decision-making set in. 

Similarly, aspects of Milgram's obedience experiment looms over the space station and accentuates the film's exploration of the thin line between duty and blind allegiance. The Milgram experiment (conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram) looked at how people obey authority figures. In the experiment, participants were instructed to inflict pain on another person under the authority's orders, which highlighted the disturbing extent to which individuals may comply with authority (even to the detriment of their own morals).

In I.S.S., we see the orders transmitted from Earth, which puts Kira and the others in a situation where authority demands the three astronauts go against what they think is right. Therefore, the film mirrors the stark reality of how individuals (even when hundreds of miles up in the sky orbiting in the remoteness of space) can be swayed by external authority. And how quickly the crewmembers fall into murderous obedience as they turn on the people they were joyously interacting with just moments before. 

Going into the film I was expecting another slow-moving space drama with lots of science talk (both fake and real), but the film played very heavily on the action and the growing tension. And thanks to Cowperthwaite’s direction, the film offers a lot of immersive qualities. So, I can imagine how seeing this in an Imax theatre would make you feel like you are floating right alongside a crew filled with betrayers and murderers.

In addition to the visuals, the film's masterful use of sound, (everything from the constant whirring noises echoing throughout the station to the powerful sounds of the piano in the climax) adds another layer to its cosmic narrative. The auditory symphony becomes a metaphor for the chaos unfolding on Earth (and in space) which further resonates with the exploration of the human psyche under extreme conditions.

Overall, I.S.S isn't just a space thriller; it's an interstellar exploration of geopolitical tensions, psychological experiments, and the human condition in the isolation of space. As the characters navigate the Prisoner's Dilemma and grapple with an unseen (yet controlling) authority figure, the film propels itself into the cosmic realm of standout contributions to the genre. The film offers an adrenaline rush that transcends Earthly boundaries and solidifies its status as an early highlight of 2024 and a must-watch for those seeking a captivating journey through the vast expanse of human behavior in extraordinary cosmic circumstances.

I.S.S. is now in theaters.


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