Two good performances and some pretty visuals can’t save Netflix’s post-apocalyptic slog ‘IO’
A review of the aimless drama, on Netflix now
One of the genres to see a small boom from Netflix’s throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks strategy to picking up content has been science fiction. In the past few years, the streaming service has released a number of movies about aliens, apocalypses, not-too-distant futures and far-flung worlds. Most of them have not broken through the general pop cultural consciousness, and the ones that did — your Cloverfield Paradox, your Mute — were not particularly well received (even though I think both are worthwhile).
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that IO will be the one to finally win Netflix some science-fiction kudos. It’s a beautifully-filmed drama about the end of the world, a film with an equal eye on science and mythology that zeroes in on a scientist who’s known no other life and a man who drops from out of the sky to take her away to Jupiter. Both of the central performances — Margaret Qualley as Sarah and Anthony Mackie as Micah — are very good. But it’s just so slow, and whatever goodwill the movie earns from its premise and performances is squandered long before the ambiguous, silly ending.
In IO’s vision of the future, scientists warn of coming global climate catastrophe — as they are right now — but then, before the countries of the world can come together to do anything about it, there is “an unexpected change in atmosphere composition” that turns the Earth toxic, causing humankind to flee to the stars. Not our heroine, though; she and her family stay behind, because her father is a famous scientist who believes in the power of life to adapt to adverse conditions, and he is confident he can figure out a way for mankind to survive on our home planet.
And so Sarah spends her days performing science experiments in “the Zone,” the local city where the air is too dangerous to breathe, and writing emails to her boyfriend aboard the Exodus ship currently orbiting Jupiter’s moon Io. The first act of the film is basically Sarah alone doing science stuff; it plays almost like the scenes of Matt Damon doing sciencey things on Mars in The Martian, except she’s on Earth! And also the film has no idea how to make whatever she’s doing comprehensible to the audience in the way that one did, and it doesn’t realize that The Martian’s scenes of NASA back on Earth and of the astronauts on their way to rescue him were crucial in breaking up the monotony of daily life as the only person on a planet.
Right around the half-hour mark, a catastrophic, toxic storm does break up Sarah’s monotony, destroying much of her home base, exposing her lab to toxic air, and ruining her bee colony. Just as she’s contemplating whether she should start over or figure out a way to reach the final shuttle off Planet Earth, a man named Micah floats down out of the sky in a giant balloon. He’s looking for her father, who Sarah says is off on a scientific camping trip and should be back soon.
As they wait around for Sarah’s father to return, the two size each other up. What does Micah want? What does he think about Sarah? She’s too young to really remember, but he’s old enough to have lived in “before,” so how many questions can she ask him before he grows tired of her?
From here on out, the film can’t decide what it is. Is it a romantic drama between these two, who for all we know are the last two people alive on Earth? Is it a thriller, as they decide to catch the final Exodus shuttle and must race to the launch site? They sure don’t seem in any hurry to leave, if that’s the case. Instead, they sit around and talk at length about heady topics like humanity’s need for connection, the power of myth, and Sarah’s insistence that science will figure out a way for humanity to return to Earth.
It’s at this point that the film’s muddled thematics are its undoing. Sarah is something who is both incredibly pragmatic and scientific, and also utterly beguiled by the allure of mythology. She has a book of myths she reads often, and she has spent much time in the Zone looking at a subway advertisement for what she now knows was “the last art show” at the local museum, an art show about mythology. A different script, one that made her the woman of science and him the man of myth, may have been more fun. They could have Instead, he just sort of sits around and listens to her pontificate about the conditions required for life to emerge, and jumps in every now and then to tell her that he believes humankind is always seeking their second half. Is he her other half? Should I be rooting for them to be together? Who knows! I sure don’t! By the silly, ambiguous end, when the film finally decides to come down firmly on the side of myth over science, I found it difficult to care what happened anymore.
It’s a shame, because both Margaret Qualley and Anthony Mackie are quite good. He’s so charismatic in the Marvel movies, but here he conveys a world-weary stoicism I didn’t know he was capable of. He’s a man repressing overwhelming guilt and anger, one who still wants to be capable of tenderness. Qualley, too, is great. She’s believable as a competent, steadfast scientist and a naive woman grappling with unimaginable loss. I’ve seen her before in a number of things, and while I always think at first that she might be Emma Roberts or maybe Kaya Scodelario, this performance is going to make me take notice of whatever she does next.
Though it’s muddled and doesn’t really explore its thematics with any depth, it is somewhat interesting to watch Io stumble through a morality tale about why the Earth is worth saving, and why humanity belongs here. This is the kind of film that might be an interesting curio in a hundred years or so, whichever way climate change has gone; if there aren’t many of us left, I can see future cultural anthropologists looking back at this film and saying, “See, they knew and did nothing!” Conversely, if we all come together and figure this thing out in time to head off disaster, movies like this will be very much of an era, reflecting our current cultural anxieties around the Earth turning against us.
At one point, while exploring The Zone, Sarah stops to gaze up at a billboard advertising the Exodus mission, the structure already being reclaimed by the Earth. The billboard is in typical 1950s retro-futuristic propaganda style, showing comic book-like spaceships fleeing Earth for the stars. This week, billionaire Elon Musk announced plans to build and test a life-supporting starship prototype in Texas; the picture he shared shows those cliché spaceship designs come to life, leaping from the pages of science fiction comics out into the real world.
We live in volatile times, when it seems like the Earth might in fact become toxic at any moment — and in fact, in many ways, for many people, it already is. Perhaps, as Sarah’s boyfriend in the film — the fittingly-named Elon — suggests, it’s time to cut our losses and run.