May 26, 2024

At first, the crew on board the International Space Station (ISS) mistakes the small spot of fire on Earth for a volcano. But look: there is another, and another. In fact, these astronauts have a bird’s-eye view of a nuclear showdown between the Russian and American governments that turns the planet into a huge glowing ball of fire by the end of the movie. But for the crew of six – three Americans and three Russians – nuclear Armageddon is just the beginning of their problems.

A low budget, slightly muted survival thriller – moderately tense, with too few ideas to qualify as actively cerebral – what the movie does have is a brilliant performance by west side story‘s Ariana DeBose as biologist and rookie astronaut Kira. Like all the characters here, she’s sketched a little too thinly, but DeBose brings real warmth and likability to the role, making Kira easy to root for. And there are some interesting moments as she adjusts to zero gravity.

The film’s director, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, made her name with the killer documentary Blackfish, and brings her documentary maker’s curiosity to the mechanics of life in space. Sleep is the hardest thing to acclimate to, Kira quickly learns; one of the Russians, Nika (Masha Mashkova), shows her how to tie into a harness at night. (Warning: some scenes are not suitable for the claustrophobic.)

There is a “no politics” rule aboard the ISS – and the atmosphere is friendly and collegial. But within minutes of World War III breaking out, both the American and Russian crews are given orders to seize control of the station “by any means necessary”. (Of course, the villains insert the Russian knife first.) And here it becomes unbelievable. The Earth is burning, but mostly these astronauts act like there’s something to play for: a government to report to, or a life to return to. No one seems to have an existential freakout about what awaits them if they survive: starvation, thirst, anarchy and a slow death.

Of course, the carnage on board is meant to be a microcosm of the mutual destruction below. One murder leads to another; it just doesn’t make much sense. Still, ISS delivers one knockout-horrific death in space: a screwdriver to the neck, perfect little bubbles of blood floating nicely away in zero gravity.

ISS is now in UK cinemas.

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