Netflix's New Apocalyptic Thriller 'IO' Has Lofty Ambitions but Never Takes Flight
Toward the end of 2018, Netflix released some of the best original movies in the company's relatively short but wildly productive history as a major Hollywood disruptor. Along with the breakaway viral success of Netflix's Bird Box, the meme-inspiring Sandra Bullock thriller about children wearing blindfolds, the company dropped a brilliantly observed fertility comedy (Private Life), a painstakingly constructed Western anthology (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), a gorgeously photographed historical drama (Roma), a neatly conceptualized sex-work thriller (Cam), and, in perhaps its most impressive feat, a previously "lost" feature from master filmmaker Orson Welles (The Other Side of the Wind). It was an impressive run aided by deep pockets, deft creative choices, and a clear ambition to be taken seriously during the awards season.
Now that it's January, a month often considered a dumping ground for major studios, Netflix has released IO, a science-fiction drama starring Anthony Mackie and Margaret Qualles that finds the platform once again back on its bullshit -- its bullshit being totally forgettable science-fiction movies. While a film like Roma might (rightfully) earn more attention in the press, Netflix remains committed to pumping out a steady stream of less-than-stellar genre fare like How It Ends, Extinction, The Titan, ARQ, and Spectral. Despite some lofty ideas and two talented lead actors, IO is more of the same: uninspired storytelling that feels designed to feed the algorithm more than it nourishes your brain.
In the opening voice-over, we hear Qualles's Sam Walden, the daughter of famous scientist Dr. Henry Walden (Danny Huston), explaining that Earth was doomed to destruction because of "human nature," establishing a stern and dreary tone that remains constant throughout the film. Given the state of the Earth in the movie's bleak future, that's not entirely surprising: A significant chunk of humanity has been wiped off the face of the planet by changes in the atmosphere, sending most survivors scurrying into space to discover a new home. Temporarily, they've taken up residence at a space station circling Io, a moon of Jupiter named for a figure from Greek mythology, but they hope to explore the galaxy further and rebuild society. Maybe find an Earth 2.
Determined and stubborn, Sam is one of the last holdouts on Earth. While maintaining a very-long-distance relationship via email with her boyfriend Elon -- no, probably not that Elon -- on Io, Sam spends most of her time conducting experiments, raising bees, and listening to her father's lectures on tape. It's a lonely, isolated existence but, like the Restoration Hardware catalog vibe of A Quiet Place, there's a quasi-aspirational quality to Sam's sealed-off method of survival. She's not happy. (Certain details about her family life are kept cryptic for plot reasons, but there are no "twists" a seasoned reader of dystopian stories shouldn't see coming.) She's not completely miserable, either.
The arrival of Mackie's Micah, a straggler left behind on Earth who travels around in a hot air balloon, changes Sam's situation. There's a shuttle leaving the planet in four days, the last one before Earth gets abandoned for good, and Micah soon insists that Sam join him. Out of loyalty to her scientist father's teachings, Sam isn't as excited to voyage into the unknown; she wants to remain behind and revive life on Earth. In between equipment repairs and expository reveals, the two share dialogue that strains for profundity: Micah quotes Plato at length and Sam explains the equation tattoo on her arm. At times, the movie resembles a ponderous but well-meaning play, like Beckett rewritten by a bot fond of platitudes like "people can change" and "people aren't meant to be alone."
As the movie progresses, Sam and Micah's relationship deepens and the two make a journey together. Still, for as much time as the two spend chatting about philosophy, their own personal transgressions, and the fate of humanity, director Jonathan Helpert and the movie's three credited screenwriters keep the exact nature of the dynamic opaque. Do Sam and Micah share a romantic bond? A spiritual connection? A sexual spark? Depending on the scene, it's hard to tell, and, as the movie dutifully moves toward its conclusion, it becomes even harder to care. Without action, suspense, or romance, there's simply not much to keep you invested in IO's sleepy apocalyptic parable.
It's a shame, because the anxieties about climate change, resource depletion, and personal responsibility that the movie prods at are worth examining. A movie like last year's Paul Schrader drama First Reformed, with its brooding sense of dread and lacerating understanding of religious guilt, featured a more honest and visceral reckoning with the questions IO dances around. Part of the promise of speculative stories like IO is that they can wrestle with issues and ideas that narratives set in the present might feel too timid to confront. Unfortunately, IO too often resembles the vessel Mackie's character arrives in: It's full of hot air.