By Dwight Brown Film Critic for DwightBrownInk.com and NNPA News Wire | 1/19/2024, 1:16 p.m.
Blast off! This gripping sci-fi/dra/thr holds attention from the moment astronaut Dr. Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose, West Side Story) enters the International Space Station (I.S.S.).
In the near future, in the middle of nowhere and far from earth, Foster is welcomed by fellow Americans Gordon (Chris Messina, King Richard) and Christian (John Gallagher) as she enters the I.S.S. They introduce her to Russian astronauts Alexey (Pilou Asbaek), Nicholai (Costa Ronin) and the other woman at the station Weronika (Masha Mashkova). The crew screams: “Welcome!” They seem oblivious to their differences: “We don’t talk politics.”
That unique beginning of Nick Shafir’s imaginative script pans out well. Great premise. Strong unusual setting. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite takes that seed of creativity and develops it into a film that mixes suspense, drama and sabotage into a thrilling survival story.
The interiors are claustrophobic (production designer Geoff Wallace) in the most sci-fi ways. You understand how isolating and precarious the situation is for all the astronauts. Any disruption can be life threatening. Any screw-up could doom them all. There’s nothing around them except space. No rescue mission can save them from disaster. They’re totally dependent on each other. Until they aren’t.
Messages from earth arrive, indicating that the world is aflame and a U.S./Russia conflict rages. Fear and mistrust take over. Foster fields the communique from the Johnson Space Center in Houston and passes it on to her American colleagues: “War has broken out below. And we were told to take the I.S.S. by any means necessary!” That command pushes the crew into doing sneaky, hostile things. It’s a creepy, uneasy dynamic that doesn’t dissipate until the movie ends.
The proceedings are written like a play with little movement, focusing on building the characters, relationships and undercurrents. Not the action sequences. So, when there is an indiscretion, fight or attempted murder it’s extremely intense. Like people making crucial decisions in a lifeboat that’s sinking and suddenly someone gets pushed overboard. Then someone else. Then someone else.
On a small budget, Cowperthwaite makes a movie with as much tension and gravitas as a blockbuster space film (Gravity). Nothing comes between the audience and the astronauts. It’s like the viewers are hidden in a compartment witnessing the whole thing. Aghast that people would do these horrible things to each other. Yet knowing that their lives depend on how cunning they can be. That’s the mark of smart intuitive direction. The kind that makes movie situations seem real. The kind that keeps theater and streaming audiences riveted.
The interstellar performances push the dread factor up to high levels that will fray viewers’ nerves. All the characters seem normal until they don’t. Until desperation and survival instincts make them do unthinkable things. DeBose is the vulnerable protagonist audiences will relate too. Her friendly demeanor, naivete, robbed innocence and call to action become increasingly compelling as the film heads to its climax. Her supporting actors make it hard to see who’s friend and foe until life-or-death decisions are made and all fend for themselves.
Nick Remy Matthews’ fluid camerawork is as effective as Anne Nikitin’s intense musical score and Colin Patton and Richard Mettler’s precision editing. Stunt coordinator G. Peter King herds and coaches the space crew well, aiding Cowperthwaite’s astute guidance. The visual effects (Chris LeDoux) take you to the station and abandon you there. Sound effects make you hear every eerie creak.
Very heady. Very scary. With U.S./Russian relations on thin ice these days, this scenario hits real close to home. Or outer space. Brilliant.