Margaret Qualley and Anthony Mackie add gravity to a sci-fi drama about a dying Earth that marries admirable ambition with inconsistent plotting
In promotional blurbs, Netflix describes its newest original film, IO, as set on “post-cataclysmic” Earth. It’s a fitting description – somewhere between calamity and full apocalypse – for a film that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Too measured and sedate for a post-apocalyptic thriller, yet too barren for a Christopher Nolan-style space and time travel epic, IO appears most akin to The Martian in that it focuses primarily on one person’s grit and resourcefulness to endure and grow plants in an unforgiving place.
And the Earth in IO is relentlessly unforgiving, a wasteland riddled with abandoned cars and decaying corner marts after “an unexpected change in atmosphere composition” either choked out the humans or drove them into space. Most of the surviving humans reside on a space station orbiting IO, the innermost of Jupiter’s moons (also the name of one of Zeus’ mortal lovers, and your first clue that the movie pours Greek mythology into every other scene).
All have left Earth except for Sam (The Leftovers’ Margaret Qualley), the daughter of a scientist, who meticulously keeps bees and studies genetics, alone, on a mountaintop in one of Earth’s few remaining air pockets. Sam fills her days with data, emails to her IO-residing boyfriend (pointedly named Elon), and occasional trips into the Zone, an abandoned city accessible only by ATV and oxygen mask. Though she views the “cataclysmic event” as “just our planet desperately trying to survive by kicking us out”, Sam is steadfastly committed to Earth; despite Elon’s urging to catch a final Exodus shuttle to IO, she’s bound to the quiet planet, though this is complicated by the unexpected arrival of another solo survivor, Micah (Anthony Mackie).
Isolated, hopeful, scarred by lightyears of longing, love and loss – and thus covering all the major themes of space epics – Sam and Micah develop a careful bond, and what transpires is a movie by turns winningly empathetic and inconsistently paced. Long gazes, classical music, landscape shots and meditations on Greek mythology abruptly clash with storms, bursts of rage that double as information drops and airdropped sexual tension. But the relationship between Sam and Micah has its own genuine gravity, even if IO doesn’t always know what world it wants to be in, and what its parameters are.
About those parameters – Netflix’s ballooning content budget allows for some truly decent sets, but IO leaves questions on the scope of the cataclysm that can’t be entirely chalked up to not understanding science. For example, we’re supposed to believe that the smog choked Earth so quickly as to leave wine glasses stained red on restaurant tables, yet billboards advertising Exodus mark the still-clear roads.
All of these inconsistencies may not add up to much, however, in that IO smartly keeps the story tightly around Sam and Micah. Qualley, as Sam, is wide-eyed and watchable; she doesn’t quite have the indefinable presence of, say, Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games, but she gives depth to Sam’s determination, even as her logic can be unclear. Mackie, as Micah, brings deep-voiced gravitas to a sparsely written role, and effectively signals PLOT TWISTS when he RAISES HIS VOICE. Together, especially when pitted against toxic odds, the two can be compelling; it’s only when they’re story-bound into romance or change-signaling arguments that worn spots in IO’s construction appear.
But that doesn’t discount the movie, whose production budget, recognizable but not megawatt cast, and full commitment to abrupt plot twists make it a fully formed Netflix original fit for streaming anytime, anywhere. A decent use of an hour and a half, IO may not know what story it is telling, but as it stands on current Earth, it knows exactly where it belongs.
IO is now available on Netflix