ISS review: Nuclear war breaks out on Earth. Up in space, can the Americans thwart the Russians?

Oscar winner Ariana DeBose’s charisma and physical presence are of value in this uncomfortable scenario

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Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Cert: 15A
Starring: Ariana DeBose, Chris Messina, Pilou Asbæk, John Gallagher jnr, Masha Mashkova, Costa Ronin
Running Time: 1 hr 40 mins

Here’s a nifty entry to a genre I’ve just invented: the chamber space movie. Smallish films such as Duncan Jones’s Moon and John Carpenter’s Dark Star fit the definition. Films that make the most of limited resources to tell a tale that relies more on narrative than effects.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s drama is not on a par with those movies, but it exploits an uncomfortable premise to forward claustrophobic intrigue that does not outstay its welcome (the reverse, if anything). Ariana DeBose plays one of six scientists – three US, three Russian – working on the International Space Station at a time of global tension. Dr DeBose’s particular concern is mice in zero gravity (someone has to), a study that, in the film’s opening act, generates some violent foreshadowing. Characterisation is thin but lucid. Masha Mashkova’s glamorous Russian looks to be having an affair with the rugged American Chris Messina. The rest are shiftier and more evasive.

The action really kicks into gear when they notice what looks to be a volcano erupting on the distant Earth. Then another. Then another. The explosions spread across Russia and the United States. Confirmation of the worst comes with a secret message to the US team explaining that nuclear war has broken out and that the Americans are required to secure the vessel “by any means necessary”. Not unreasonably, they assume the Russians have got the same message.

It’s the sort of delightfully awful premise that might once have generated a Twilight Zone episode (in which they all kill each other only to discover it’s just a drill). Here, with a burning planet over the shoulder, some crew members struggle with their conscience while others are gung-ho in annihilating the competition.


One worries if Hollywood knows what to do with DeBose after her Oscar win – song-and-dancers are not as essential as they once were – but her charisma and physical presence are of value here. The practical effects show no seams or glitches. A MacGuffin concerning a treatment for radiation sickness is so hurriedly dealt with that one scarcely has time to scoff. Indeed, if the film has a significant flaw, it is that it doesn’t get the room to breathe. Another 10 minutes to flesh out plots and subplots would have been nice.

ISS opens in cinemas on Friday, April 26th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist