“Alien” famously told us that in space no one can hear you scream. “I.S.S.,” which takes place in the US/Russia International Space Station, shows us that it may be more terrifying to consider whether in space someone can overhear your whisper.
It is an efficient thrill ride, running about 90 minutes, with every moment used as effectively as possible. There is about half an hour of set-up, like a Jenga tower, with almost every line of dialogue an indicator of a tense or terrifying moment ahead. The last hour is all about dire peril and shifting loyalties. Even though we know exactly what each piece of information—or lack of information—is doing to put maximum pressure on the six characters, we are drawn into seeing how it will play out. That is in large part due to the contributions of an excellent cast: Chris Messina, Oscar winner Ariana DeBose, and Tony winner John Gallagher, Jr. as the American crew and Masha Mashkova (“For All Mankind”), Costa Ronin (“The Americans”), and Pilou Asbæk (“Game of Thrones”) as the Russian crew. It also benefits from superb production design by Geoff Wallace and special effects that are what we anticipate (the weightless crew floats through the space station as we have seen in movies and in footage from real space flights) and still manages to surprise us. When someone bleeds in a weightless environment, it comes out in little floating drops. And when two people fight in a weightless environment, it is intriguingly different from the usual movie punches and gunfights we are used to.
Like “Alien,” “I.S.S.” creates immediate tension because it takes place in a confined setting far from earth. We are introduced to the characters and space station with the arrival of a newcomer, a scientist named Kira (DeBose), who flies to the I.S.S. with a returning officer named Christian (Gallagher). This gives us a chance to see Kira meet the other astronauts, experience weightlessness (some people strap themselves to the bed to sleep, some float), and let the lab mice she brought for her experiments experience weightlessness, too, giving us our first hint of a warning: “They’re afraid with nothing to hold onto. It does not end well.”
There is another hint of a possible problem. “The low hum you’re hearing, that’s our life support,” the American commanding officer, Gordon Barrett (Messina) tells Kira. “When you don’t hear that hum, that’s when you start to panic.” Kira will be listening for that silence, and so will we.
These introductory scenes also reflect an understanding of workplace dynamics, magnified here because they are on top of each other all day, every day. We see the familiar superficial geniality and wry humor, but also the evident encouragement they give each other because they all need the best from each other for their own survival. Kira begins to get to know the other members of the crew, with an immediate connection to the only other woman on board, Weronika (Mashkova), but a less collegial experience with her fellow scientist (Asbæk as Alexy). Overall, though, the atmosphere is supportive and there is a genuine feeling of teamwork, the unique circumstances transcending their different cultural divisions, especially when they share a look at the big blue marble that is our planet, peaceful, unified, as though the lines on our maps do not exist.
And then, in a shocking scene, the crew sees what a first they think is a volcano exploding on earth. But then an ugly, blistering rash covers huge parts of the planet, and that kind of destruction can only come from humans. Barrett gets a cryptic message to seize control of the space station “by any means necessary,” but not to tell anyone, even the other Americans. It is likely that the Russians received the same from their government.
The intensity of the tension in “I.S.S.” comes as much from seeing how quickly the genial atmosphere evaporates and each crew member must decide whether they can trust anyone, including the couple sharing a romance that crosses the US/Russia division. It is clear that the trust is more important than the machinery, and both are at the direst risk as the space station cannot survive without support from earth within a few hours and their communications fail. Shifting loyalties and failing technology keep the tension mounting and the story moving so briskly we don’t have time to think about it too hard, which is probably just as well.