• Tue. Feb 27th, 2024

Movie Curiosities

The online diary of an aspiring movie nerd

By any reasonable metric, the International Space Station is truly one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments. A triumph of human engineering and astrophysics, bridging what could potentially be the most acrimonious and potentially apocalyptic rivalry in the history of international politics (except maybe India/Pakistan). Ever since the station was first launched in 1998, it’s been kept aloft with 25 years’ worth of continuous money and manpower, returning that investment with goodwill between nations and a library of scientific discoveries far too long to be recounted here.

Too bad the I.S.S. is getting on in years, with aging hardware and software that can only be upgraded so many more times. It’s scheduled for decommission in January 2031, and we still don’t know what will replace it.

In the meantime, here’s I.S.S., a suspense thriller set on the station. It’s worth noting that the film was directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, a documentary filmmaker with a strong background in political science. The screenplay comes to us from Nick Shafir, who’s apparently written fuck-all until now. Which explains a lot, as the film’s plot and premise are fundamentally broken, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The film opens with the arrival of Dr. Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose), a Marine veteran with a background in biology, on her first trip to I.S.S. to advance her groundbreaking research in organ regeneration. She joins Christian Campbell (John Gallagher Jr.), an Air Force veteran with a physics background; and Gordon Barrett (Chris Messina), the de facto leader of the USA contingent.

On the Russian side, we’ve got Weronika Vetrov (Mashka Mashkova) alongside the Pulov Brothers named Nicholai and Alexei (Costa Ronin and Pilou Asbaek, respectively). Everyone’s getting along great, and the film makes a huge deal about how politics are taboo on the space station, nobody’s borders are visible from space, and so on. That all goes to shit when nuclear war breaks out down on Earth, and both nationalities get orders from their respective governments to take the I.S.S. by any means necessary.

So, what we’ve got here are six characters stuck together in such oppressive isolation that moving to escape or calling for help are not options. An environment in which the slightest mistake or injury or systems failure could mean death for everyone aboard. A mere handful of characters who know each other intimately, crammed together in such tight quarters that keeping any kind of secret for any significant length of time should be impossible.

Furthermore, precisely because they’re in such extreme isolation, none of the characters have any way of knowing what’s really happening on the ground. They don’t know what’s happening with their governments, they don’t know if their friends or family are okay, they don’t know when or if a resupply is coming. They don’t know much of anything about anything, really. Yet there’s the potentially lethal pressure to make the first move. Thus the characters are forced to make desperate blind leaps at substantial risks that could lead to catastrophic results.

This is all fantastic stuff, and the actors all play their parts supremely well. Granted, the zero-G effects are hit-and-miss — a lot of times, the effect is done by bobbing and weaving the camera in this obnoxious kind of way. But then there are times like that thoroughly awesome airlock fight early in the third act.

Even so, the premise is easily the strongest part of the movie. Yet it’s also what leaves the movie irreparably broken.

It’s a basic tenet of storytelling that every story comes down to a single question: Will the protagonist get what they want? As soon as that question gets a definitive yes or no answer, that’s when the story ends. By those standards, this movie was over before it began.

Remember, we’re not talking about some territorial dispute or a diplomatic crisis, this is a full-blown worldwide nuclear holocaust. Countless times, we can see for ourselves that the entire planet is quite literally on fire. I can’t possibly overstate how completely and totally fucked the entire planet clearly and irrefutably is.

Everyone on the I.S.S. should’ve known immediately that their homes are now destroyed. Their friends and family are all dead. Even if they found some way of surviving atmospheric re-entry, the flesh would melt off their bones as soon as they set foot on dry land.

Granted, it makes sense that there would be a few government higher-ups holed away for a time in some Cold War-era bunkers somewhere. And sure, it’s plausible that they’d have some means of contacting the I.S.S. But they apparently think the space station is a “critical foothold”? Why? To what end? What the nine hells would they do with the I.S.S. if they got it? How could taking the station do any damned thing about the nuclear war on Earth? Those half-dozen people up in space are the only ones safely removed from radioactive fallout, now you’re going to make them kill each other for the sake of ensuring mankind’s ongoing survival? What the fuck?!

This is indisputably a no-win scenario. Regardless of what the characters want, there’s no plausible way they’re getting it. Which means that all their plotting and backstabbing is utterly pointless. It doesn’t matter who kills whom because this can only end with every single one of them dead. And no, I don’t care that one of the I.S.S. scientists was working on a cure for radiation sickness (assuming that wasn’t a manipulative bluff) because have you looked out the fucking window?! That’s a Band-Aid on a godforsaken corpse!

Speaking of which, I’m always peeved to see a movie about stupid astronauts. We’re talking about one of the most selective professions in human history; a job that demands peak physical fitness, extraordinary scientific intelligence, rock-solid calm under pressure, and years of training before anyone can even think about spending millions of taxpayer dollars to send them up into the cold vacuum of space with the reasonable certainty that they’ll come back alive and bring all that expensive equipment back in one piece. Given all of that, a movie that portrays astronauts as unreasonably stupid is an automatic dealbreaker for me.

(Side note: For me, The Martian is still the best movie I’ve ever seen for portraying astronauts with the intelligence and professionalism they deserve. For the worst example, fuck Stowaway.)

Granted, these particular astronauts are facing a wildly improbable scenario like nothing anyone could’ve possibly prepared for. They could never have trained for witnessing and surviving a nuclear apocalypse from orbit, and I doubt the possibility of a state-sponsored mutiny ever crossed anyone’s mind. Given all that, I can excuse a certain degree of erratic and short-sighted behavior. That said, nobody in the entire movie ever raises the question of what supposedly comes after “take the I.S.S.” Nobody asks what comes after “return to a planet so radioactive that we’ll die one way or another as soon as we get down there.” In my estimation, that most definitely counts as “too stupid to be an astronaut.”

What’s really tragic is that I.S.S. is a phenomenal potboiler undone by a single all-encompassing flaw. The presentation is wonderful, the premise is inspired, the pacing is tight, the performances are A-1… literally the only thing this movie desperately needed was a chance that the characters could plausibly survive. Without that, the entire plot is completely meaningless. Regardless of how superbly the tension is portrayed, it’s all for nothing if the characters’ actions and motivations are entirely moot.

If only Nick Sharif had a couple more scripts under his belt before giving this one a try. If only the producers had handed this script off to someone with a basic understanding of stakes and motivation in screenwriting. As it is, this one gets chalked up as a tragically wasted opportunity.

By Curiosity Inc.

I hold a B.S. in Bioinformatics, the only one from Pacific University's Class of '09. I was the stage-hand-in-chief of my high school drama department and I'm a bass drummer for the Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers. I dabble in video games and I'm still pretty good at DDR. My primary hobby is going online for upcoming movie news. I am a movie buff, a movie nerd, whatever you want to call it. Comic books are another hobby, but I'm not talking about Superman or Spider-Man or those books that number in the triple-digits. I'm talking about Watchmen, Preacher, Sandman, etc. Self-contained, dramatic, intellectual stories that couldn't be accomplished in any other medium. I'm a proud son of Oregon, born and raised here. I've been just about everywhere in North and Central America and I love it right here.

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