' ' Cinema Romantico: I.S.S.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024


“I.S.S.” stands for International Space Station, which is where all of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2024 thriller is set, in orbit 250 miles above earth. A symbol of collaborative unity after the end of the Cold War, a title card tells us, this space base demonstrated how one-time geopolitical rivals could get along, meaning that it’s only a matter of time before everything in “I.S.S.” goes wrong and puts is three astronauts and three cosmonauts at one another’s throats. That comes in the form of a war erupting back on the home planet between the two countries, both of whom immediately message their respective countrymen and countrywomen in space to claim the station in the name of their respective flag. It’s a crack set-up that, disappointingly, frustratingly, goes nowhere in terms of philosophy, politics, or drama.

“I.S.S.” is predominantly seen through the eyes of Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose), a biologist cum marine cum astronaut who has blasted into space to run experiments with live mice intended to prove, well, I haven’t the foggiest. The intention of the tests proves less important than the result, that is, frightened from being weightless, the mice mutilate each other overnight, scientific observation as an omen, forecasting the crew-on-crew violence to come just as Kira’s scant backstory of keeping to herself becomes an omen too, juxtaposed against Weronika (Masha Mashkova) stressing the need to stick together. This is plot disguised as character, in other words, rather than the other way around. And that’s fine, quite honestly, as I tend to enjoy so many setups sprinkled all over the narrative like breadcrumbs. But just as American Commander Barrett (Chris Messina) mentioning to Kira that if you don’t hear the hum of the life support system, that means trouble, fails to pay off with any kind of flourish, neither do any of the other setups, betraying a thriller with virtually no pep in its payoffs, a storytelling sin.

That sin might have been forgivable if “I.S.S.” had sought to be more of a political thriller than thriller-thriller. For a moment, you think it might when Kira’s first night aboard the space station ends with the sextet belting out “Wind of Change.” That 1991 Scorpions ballad became as much an emblem of the Cold War’s end as much as the space station, suggesting a movie in which the emergent hostilities will trigger the beginning of Cold War II. Except, as one of the cosmonauts says, they don’t talk politics, and neither does “I.S.S.” In rendering the personality traits of its characters as mere harbingers of the plot, they are also stripped of any real political or even national identity, and so, undercutting any genuine sense of such stakes when war breaks out. And if this is all meant to reduce them to savagery, men and women as animals a la the mice, the filmmaking is too polite to evoke such savagery. Though you sense significant work went into filming in an ostensible zero gravity environment, its disorienting effect never translates. The most potent images are of the Earth on fire below, a striking juxtaposition of beauty and terror never echoed in the movie itself, leaving one to wonder if the more interesting movie is down there somewhere.

No comments: