'IO': Film Review

Courtesy of Netflix
Climate change the channel.
1/18/2019

Margaret Qualley and Anthony Mackie are the last people on an environmentally ravaged Earth in this second-rate sci-fi melodrama premiering on Netflix.

The sorry environmental state of our planet has provided much fodder for filmmakers who want to address and/or revel in humanity's likely doom. We reap what we sow, and to some, like that grand master of cinematic destruction Roland Emmerich, that's cause for the kind of CGI-heavy super-production (see, or rather, don't see 2009's 2012) that allows each viewer to play Nero gleefully fiddling while the world onscreen burns. Other artists look for hope among the ruins, and that's what director Jonathan Helpert and screenwriters Clay Jeter, Charles Spano and Will Basanta aim for in the sadly vacuous Netflix-released sci-fi melodrama IO.

This was clearly made on a budget that would barely fund a day on an Emmerich feature, though that could have easily been a blessing. Given smaller resources, how does one convincingly convey mass destruction? There are indeed some strong and suggestive images sprinkled throughout IO, such as the opening one of a flurry of spaceships launching from the dark side of Earth. Destination: Io, the fourth-largest moon of Jupiter, where most of humanity retreats after environmental cataclysm makes our little blue world near-completely uninhabitable. The entirety of the film, however, takes place in and around a habitable pocket of our planet where Sam Walden (Margaret Qualley), daughter of climate change scientist Henry Walden (Danny Huston), continues her father's work in his seemingly temporarily absence.

Sam's goal, like her dad's, is to see if mankind has to move permanently off-planet, or if Earth, absent most of the population that ravaged it, will somehow reset and renew itself. There's little cause for hope. So Sam wiles away the days by venturing into a nearby despoiled metropolis, both for fact-finding missions and to pine over a lost society she barely experienced. She then returns to her mountaintop enclave, high above the polluted air, to continue her experiments, using honeybees as test subjects. Sam also writes intergalactic emails to an unseen romantic interest on Io (his name, hilariously, is Elon). And she broadcasts cassette tapes of her father's lectures over the radio (one of the few remaining forms of terrestrial communication) in the unlikely case anyone is left on planet to listen.

Lo and behold, a visitor drops out of the sky one day in a makeshift helium balloon. This is Micah (Anthony Mackie), a former teacher-turned-survivalist who is searching for Henry and quickly realizes he has to make do with Sam. Not that that's a bad thing, since Sam is soon tempting Micah like Eve did Adam in the Garden of Eden, though with more Millennial emoting than Old Testament fire.

There's barely a scene in IO that's performed with pulse or verve. It's Sad-Face Emoji Sci-Fi, with po-faced references to Greek mythology, Chopin and T.S. Eliot, among others, and empirical techno-jargon spoken at a Valley Girl level of credibility. Mackie tries his best (you gotta do something with your time between Marvel movies), though Qualley is a major weak link, seeming less like a forlorn last person on Earth than an inconvenienced high schooler who left her iPhone in a locker room…in space!

As suggested above, the visuals occasionally mitigate the tedium. Cinematographer André Chemetoff composes some striking images, such as the shot of Micah's balloon landing on the vast field outside Sam's research facility, or those during much of a late sequence in which a decaying museum is revealed to house a verdant garden untouched by all the atmospheric plunder. It's not a good sign, however, when a movie ostensibly meant to rekindle one's faith in mankind makes you long instead for permanent apocalypse.

Production companies: Baked Studios, Mandalay Pictures, Sunset Junction Entertainment, Untitled Entertainment
Distributor: Netflix
Director: Jonathan Halpert
Screenwriters: Clay Jeter, Charles Spano, Will Basanta

Executive producers: Ian Bricke, Dave Hansen, Ryan Andrej Lough, Johnny Mac, Victor Shapiro, Charles Spano, Raphael Swann
Producers: Jason Michael Berman, Laura Rister
Co-producers: Patrick Raymond, Will Raynor

Music: Alex Belcher, Henry Jackman
Cinematographer: André Chemetoff
Editors: Jeff Betancourt, Mike Fromentin, Tony Randel
Production design: François-Renaud Labarthe
Costume designers: Sonia de Souza, Omayma Ramzy

96 minutes