Claustrophobic space drama with a throwback enemy.
BEFORE WE DISCUSS I.S.S., let’s flashback about six months, to the debut of Oppenheimer. Specifically, the closing shots of Oppenheimer, in which Oppie (Cillian Murphy) confesses to Albert Einstein (Tom Conti) that he thinks his weapon to end all war might have destroyed the world, closes his eyes, and imagines that weapon sitting atop thousands of ICBMs, all of them launching and landing, a wave of fire spreading across the world as the atmosphere burns off.
It’s a striking, but odd, ending to the film; the vibes feel more in tune with The Day After or Mick Jackson’s Threads than our modern concerns about nuclear war. The end of the Cold War reduced nukes to the threats of madmen seeking planetary resets or rogue terrorist groups rather than a source of existential dread. It also turned Russians into stock villains of a different sort, the kind that are interchangeable with neo-Nazis who you call in to, say, substitute for Islamic terrorists because you’re worried at critics and politicians yelling at you for stereotyping Islamic terrorists.
I.S.S., like Oppenheimer, feels almost as if it is a throwback to an earlier time. The International Space Station, as we read in a title card, is a joint Russian–U.S. project designed to promote the ideal of peace and harmony between the two global powers able to end all life on Earth. As the film opens, Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose) and Christian Campbell (John Gallagher) are linking up with the I.S.S. from a Soyuz capsule, the Russian-made spacecraft that shuttles astronauts and cosmonauts from Earth to the space station and back down again.
Foster is new to the station and thus our entry into this world as she (literally) has to find her footing in the weightlessness of space. She also has to navigate a language barrier with cosmonauts Nika Vetrov (Masha Mashkova), Alexey Pulov (Pilou Asbæk), and Nicholai Pulov (Costa Ronin). American commander Gordon Barrett (Chris Messina) shows her the ropes—hook your toes into the bars; strap yourself into a bag when it’s time to sleep—and everyone sips a little booze to get through that awkward first day.
The mood of the joint-nationality crew might be described as awkwardly convivial. The set design emphasizes the cramped quarters of both their living and their working conditions, and the language barrier leads to jokes not landing, as when Gordon jokes that Alexey’s attempt to sing along with the Scorpions’ “Winds of Change” is terrible. Alexey thinks Gordon is calling the song terrible, causing offense as the song means a great deal to Alexey and his compatriots, representing as it does the end of the Evil Empire and a better life for everyone behind the Iron Curtain.
But old habits die hard, and when nuclear war erupts on the planet below them the Russkies and the Americans are faced with a choice: act like the “evolved” scientists they claim to be or turn their screwdrivers into shivs and go to war with each other for control of the I.S.S., which their nations have deemed of vital strategic importance while the entire landmass of the Earth is on fire below them.
I’m a sucker for “humans trapped in a metal tube in space” movies, from Sunshine to 2001: A Space Odyssey to Event Horizon. There’s something about the setting that really emphasizes humanity’s basic dramatic problem: We need each other to survive but we (and, well, the artificial intelligences we create to help us) hate and distrust each other in a way that makes it hard to survive. But for the premise to work, the goal the humans are striving for must be relatively straightforward. In Sunshine, the crew of the Icarus II wants to restart the sun; in 2001, the Discovery One is sent to Jupiter to find a monolith; in Event Horizon, the Lewis and Clark is sent to the orbit of Neptune to salvage a ship that traveled through a black hole that also happened to send them to a hell dimension that brought back unspeakable evil. Keep it simple and let the sociological drama play out.
I.S.S. is fantastically set-designed and pleasingly claustrophobic at times, but it doesn’t quite work as drama because it’s not entirely clear to me what the ultimate goal is, beyond the survival of the people on the space station. We’re told the space station is sinking toward Earth and will get dragged into the atmosphere shortly, but no one really seems to care about that and it gets magically fixed near the end anyway. It’s hinted that there’s a Russian cure for radiation poisoning on the ship that the Americans need to commandeer, but it’s unclear to me how much such a cure would really matter given that every time we see the surface of the planet the whole thing is literally orange with flame. For a movie that is thematically preoccupied with setting aside petty tribal affiliations in order for the good of all, it is frustratingly opaque about what the greater good really is here.
Still, dramatic inadequacies aside, I.S.S. is a fascinating representation of the vibe shift with regard to Russia, who has endeavored to remind us via its illegal invasion and attempted subjugation of Ukraine that it, as a nation, is the greatest threat to world stability not run by an ayatollah. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that images of nuclear annihilation are reemerging in the collective artistic unconscious at this particular point in time. Let us hope things are not quite as dire as our creative class seems to think.