I.S.S.: Houston, We Have Real Problems

The most terrifying realities of home have the potential to follow you anywhere.

Directed by Gabriella Copperthwaite, I.S.S. begins with the arrival of scientist Dr. Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose) upon the International Space Station. Carrying a crew of Russian and American astronauts, the team is working together to help push the boundaries of science by putting aside their political differences. However, when a worldwide conflict erupts back home, each of their respective countries sends them encrypted messages that order them to take control of this once-neutral territory.

Oftentimes, space films of this nature feature either an alien threat or a psychological breakdown amongst its characters as they spin millions of miles above the Earth’s surface. But I.S.S. manages to subvert expectations by ensuring that the drama within the Space Station has its feet firmly planted on the ground. Unlike other space films, I.S.S. isn’t about the terrors of the unknown. Instead, the film focusses its lens entirely on the very real political landscape in which we live. These are characters who, both literally and figuratively, believe that they are above all the horrors that lies at home. They don’t discuss wars or political situations because such things cause division amongst them.

And, as they repeatedly remind us, things ‘will be better if we stick together.’

Even so, as the situation unravels, so too do their relationships. Mistrust, lies, and past hurts all bubble to the surface, creating tension where there was none before. With each invitation to meet in the next room, characters begin to question their safety. Conversations meant to meet in the middle suddenly become laden with code and language barriers. Whereas they were once a group who were determined to break down blockades between them, suddenly those walls begin to be rebuilt. 

In this way, I.S.S. uses its otherworldly setting to wrestle with the realities that we face on the ground. As fear and anger eat away at their relationships, the viewer begins to see humanity at its most broken. For some characters, there’s a genuine desire to prove that they’re different than those who are causing such great destruction on the planet surface. For others, political lines take precedence, creating division and viewing former allies as the ‘other’. 

Without giving away any spoilers, I.S.S. wants to ask question of what it means to move forward together (if that’s even possible). While these characters may not entirely know what that looks like or where they’re going, their terrifying situation forces them to re-examine who they really are and what they want.

Admittedly, I.S.S. does seem to show its cards relatively quickly. As a result, by revealing key players and their motivations early on, the ‘shocking’ moments do lose a little momentum. But really, Cowperthwaite’s motivations lie beyond the ‘thrill of the kill’.  She understands that the real terror lies in the evils within the human soul and the damage created when we lean into them.

And, in the end, that’s much scarier than any faceless threat.

I.S.S. is available in theatres on Friday, January 19th, 2024.

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