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‘I.S.S.’ can’t maintain the gravity of its weighty space-bound premise

If “Alien” broke ground as a haunted house movie in outer space, “I.S.S.” moves the suspense thriller into a similar confined and tense setting. Yet despite the gravity of the situation (or lack thereof), the promising idea feels too weightless in the spare, underdeveloped execution, operating at the edges of a good movie without reaching that orbit.

Set in the near future, the film hinges on a mixed Russian-American crew aboard the International Space Station. Two newly arrived US astronauts, Kira (“West Side Story’s” Ariana DeBose) and Christian (John Gallagher Jr.), join veteran Gordon (“Air’s” Chris Messina), who already has a solid rapport with his trio of international colleagues (Costa Ronin, “Game of Thrones” alum Pilou Asbæk and Masha Mashkova).

Suddenly, though, there are ominous flashes from Earth below, and cryptic messages from their respective contacts on the ground to seize control of the space station “by any means necessary.”

Lacking further input other than what they can see from space, the various astronauts begin to furtively plot what to do next, starting with their uncertainty about what their colleagues from the other country have been told.

Bringing that modern wrinkle to Cold War-era paranoia is ripe with possibilities, especially given the frostier interactions between the US and Russia in recent years. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who has worked primarily in documentaries (including CNN Films’ “Blackfish”), the script by Nick Shafir also probes the idea of personal relationships clashing with patriotic duties, further clouded by the limited information about what kind of world to which these astronauts might be coming home.

Ariana DeBose in the outer-space thriller "I.S.S." - Courtesy Bleecker Street
Ariana DeBose in the outer-space thriller "I.S.S." - Courtesy Bleecker Street

Yet despite the “Gravity”-like special effects on what appears to be a relatively modest budget, “I.S.S.” extracts a reasonable amount of suspense from its basic conceit – trapped with each other, as the crew are, aboard the ship – without paying it off effectively.

Given the small cast, it would probably help, too, if the audience had a chance to spend a little more time getting to know the players before they’re thrust into this seemingly no-win scenario, making this one of those rare recent movies that, at a scant 95 minutes, would actually benefit from more exposition.

After burnishing her singing and dancing credentials (including an Oscar for “West Side Story” and her TV-hosting work), DeBose does what she can with this grittier vehicle, but can only achieve so much within the limited contours of the character.

“Alien” featured the iconic slogan, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” In “I.S.S.,” you can hear just fine, in a movie short on thrills that might leave fans of the genre feeling as if they deserve an IOU.

“I.S.S.” premieres January 19 in US theaters. It’s rated R.

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