Review by C.J. Bunce
The trailers appeared like it could have been so much more, but it wasn’t to happen. Instead of the science fiction thriller promised in the trailer, this month’s Netflix movie Io is a slow, dry character study about a character who isn’t all that interesting. Margaret Qualley (The Nice Guys) has the lead role as Sam, daughter of a world-renowned scientist in the years after a toxin has finally pushed life from Earth. Most of humanity leaves for a colony on Jupiter’s planet Io, including Sam’s boyfriend, who tries to prompt her to meet him there via future email (that looks like text on a vintage Commodore 64). But Sam’s father has died, and she continues his research, attempting to prove “life will find a way” on Earth. Her father’s speeches persuaded many to stay, including Micah, played by Anthony Mackie (Avengers: Infinity War), whose wife has died. Via air balloon, Micah travels to Sam’s science station, one of the rare places where oxygen still allows life to go on. He comes to murder Sam’s dad, but when he learns of Sam and her desolation, he tells her she needs to come with him on the last flight from Earth. Most of the film time is quiet thought, Sam doing her experiments, including killing a bee, apologizing blandly like that makes it okay. And Sam and Micah talk at each other, contrived anger in spots from Micah, seeming indifference to anything from Sam. Should they stay or should they go?
Without any emotional punch by Qualley, not much about the film works. It’s a tale that has been told so much in science fiction and in so many better ways, that Io’s effort to tell the “end of days” story has little to offer other than an attempt at splicing in several mythology allegory references. But without compelling, believable characters and a story with a coherent message, the effort is pointless. The entirety of the film is in the Netflix trailer, and the rest of the film is filler. The message of any apocalypse story is for humanity to wake up and not let the world go to hell. Beyond that, many other movies have used the concept of apocalypse that are more accessible and interesting. Netflix’s own Orbiter 9 is much better, and the Tom Cruise sci-fi tale Obsidian offers a similar story with much more to keep viewers engaged. Even the Mad Max series offers characters who act like they want to survive. Fans of the slow-paced, sci-fi dramas Arrival or Interstellar might very well like this film, and that may have been Io’s target audience, but with little budget or script it doesn’t come close to those either.
The production expects the audience to infer too much about the character of Sam from the performance of actress Margaret Qualley. But the director, newcomer Jonathan Helpert, never settles in on who Sam is supposed to be and how much empathy we’re supposed to have for her. The easy part is understanding her loneliness, since her father died and left her alone. But the entirety of her emotions are held within–the audience cannot tell anything about her by her methodical, scientific mannerisms, her limited written messages to a boyfriend off-planet, or her stilted conversations with newcomer Micah. We know she wonders about artwork off in a museum in a territory that is deadly, but so what?
Mackie, who typically upstages the rest of the cast when he appears in a film (as in The Adjustment Bureau, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and Captain America: Winter Soldier), simply has too little to do in Io. Sam asks questions of Micah–she’s curious about the surrounding world. But she asks questions a small child would ask, making the audience think she may be a teenager (we don’t know her age), at the same time quoting complex science theory to Micah. So when she comes on to Micah romantically, it feels forced and does nothing to further the plot. This isn’t helped by casting Sam with a 22-year-old actress that looks like a teenager, playing against Micah, played by a 38-year-old made up to appear old and hardened by death and destruction. Qualley and Mackie have no chemistry, and because of their wide age gap, that’s probably a good thing. But it’s a man and woman, and what else could the writers come up with? A bad script, poor direction for Qualley, and poor casting all around leaves the viewer with nothing to hope for but the film to quickly come to an end.
Sadly the visual effects seen in the trailer are all that arrives. We never see or learn anything about the planet Io. The title is meaningless. After a scene where Sam appears to die and Micah floats away in his balloon, she shows up in a camera-filtered dreamlike world alive with a child, seeming like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Or less interesting, maybe she managed to stay alive, alone on Earth after everyone is gone, and give birth all by herself and raise a child on the toxic planet.
Unfortunately Io falls at the bottom of the direct-to-Netflix genre movies, somewhere alongside last year’s theatrical sci-fi release Annihilation and Netflix’s Extinction, and it’s less watchable than the slightly better Netflix efforts Anon and Bright.
Worth the time only for fans needing to watch the entire catalog of Qualley or Mackie, Io is streaming now only on Netflix.