Three Americans, three Russians and one exceedingly cramped office hovering 250 miles above Earth — what could possibly go wrong? Given the typical genre coordinates, the 95 minute running time and historic hostilities between Russia and the United States, the more relevant questions here are when and how quickly and entertainingly things will go kablooey in “I.S.S.,” an enjoyable, low-wattage thriller set on the International Space Station.
There are nothing but bilateral hugs and smiles when the space newbie Kira Foster (Ariana DeBose) arrives on the station, having been shot into the story on a Russian Soyuz rocket. She and another American astronaut, a smiley family man, Christian (John Gallagher Jr.), have caught a ride to the station, where she’ll be studying mice or “my little guys,” as she cooingly calls them. Like a character’s early reference to the station’s life-support system (if it stops humming, uh-oh), these helpless creatures — soon seen floating tails-up in a container — are early warning signs that something will be disturbing the relative peace very soon.
The movie — written by Nick Shafir and directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite — flashes its wailing red alarms early and often. The space station itself — a cluttered warren with tangles of wires, claustrophobic chambers and eerily weightless bodies — makes a convincing pressure cooker. And Cowperthwaite, who’s worked in nonfiction and fiction (she’s best known for her doc “Blackfish”), clearly maps the tight quarters straightaway, which adds to the ominous atmosphere. By the time a Russian colleague, Alexey (Pilou Asbaek), gruffly tells Kira that “it does not end well,” all this foreshadowing has certainly piqued expectations.
What follows is consistently watchable and sometimes tense but, despite some twists, largely unsurprising. After the introductions — Chris Messina plays the third American, Gordon — and the assorted personalities and relationships have been sketched in, the movie gets down to genre business with some worrisome red-orange flashes on Earth. Communication failures ensue, as do the progressively more fretful faces and soundtrack music. The two crews close ranks, with the Americans retreating to one corner to sneak worried looks at the similarly alarmed Russians, who include Weronika (Masha Mashkova) and Nicholai (Costa Ronin).
As things go bad and then seriously bad, Cowperthwaite keeps the pieces efficiently shuffling to and fro. She plays with constricted spaces, adds surveillance imagery to amp the disquiet and routinely folds in shots of both outer space and of the orbiting station. This reminds you of the setting’s exoticism and complements the slow-boiling sense of peril, including the obvious unease building in the characters’ head space. (The cosmic imagery also reminds you of how routine persuasive digital special effects are now.) Even so, despite the far-out milieu, the unfolding drama could have easily been set in a submarine — or any other constrained place in which characters have been assembled to prove the best and worst about humanity.
DeBose, who’s best known for her powerhouse turn as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” makes a convincing narrative axis. The performer’s warmth and charisma nicely offset Kira’s guardedness and outsider status, and that combination makes the character seem more complicated than the bit of back story she’s been given. It’s clear from the get go, from all the close-ups and hovering camerawork, that Kira is the hero of this adventure. In the end, the biggest mystery here is precisely what type of space warrior — a Sigourney Weaver in “Alien” or a Sandra Bullock in “Gravity” — she must become in order to get the job done.
Rated R for violence. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes. In theaters.