I mentioned, in a recent post other works coming out in the near future, that a Netflix film called IO was coming out on the 18th of January. This film had some gorgeous looking shots and a really good trailer. Not to mention a poster which made it look like it would be very entertaining.
So did IO take us to the Jovian system and back?
We begin on an Earth very different from our own, where, as explained by the overarching narration, the atmosphere has turned against us. People asphyxiated in their sleep or choked to death in the streets during toxic storms as the world changed. In response, humanity organized a massive exodus in 100 shuttles to a preexisting station that was built to harness energy from Jupiter's moon Io. Mankind had left Earth behind.
Not all of humanity though. One notable dissenter was Dr. Henry Walden (Danny Huston) who believed that mankind could learn to evolve and thrive, even on this new toxic Earth. He and his family stayed behind, establishing themselves at higher altitudes to escape the toxic weather and study the new world they found themselves in and try to adapt.
The story picks up some years after the deadly change of atmosphere with Dr. Walden's voice broadcast by Sam (Margaret Qualley) who is out looking for signs of life in the toxic city. Finding insect life reproducing within the toxic atmosphere she is hopeful for her father's work to keep humanity alive on their homeworld. Returning to her home base, located high on a mountain at an observatory, she decontaminates and sets to her daily work. Her daily patterns include examining her father's bees, farming the greenhouse, and using some unexplained method to attempt to inoculate herself against the toxins.
She reminisces about this with her pen-pal and remote lover on the Io colony, a fellow scientist named Elon (voiced by Tom Payne). He celebrates her discoveries with her, but says the future is on Io, with the drive to colonize the stars. She steadfastly remains to stay the course her father has set.
Disaster strikes suddenly when a toxic storm rolls through and kills her bees, which disrupts her genetic experiments, and briefly contaminates the mountain top. This raises legions of questions about why the lab site wasn't better prepared or why there weren't precautions for the bees in advance, but we'll get to that later. Relaying this to Elon, he informs her that the colony has found a viable exo-planet to colonize. All resources will be pulled from maintaining Earth outposts and picking up survivors to focus on the colonization effort at Proxima Centauri. The last shuttles will leave in four days.
With no way to evacuate herself, and she assures Elon that her father will not evacuate, she resigns herself to life on a dying Earth. But with her base camp so thoroughly damaged, she has no idea how she will continue.
Then a man in a balloon literally drops out of the sky.
Introducing himself as Micah (Anthony Mackie) he says he has come looking for Dr. Walden, and insists on seeing him. Sam, posing as his research assistant, assures him that even though Dr. Walden is not there now, he will probably be back in a few days. Micah then says he will stay and wait for him.
From here the film devolves into a strange series of awkward conversations, revelations,Sam's desire to see an old art exhibit and ancient Greek soliloquies about not being alone and finding your partner.
First the move tries to throw a not-twist at us by having Sam tell Micah she is Dr. Walden's daughter, not his research assistant as she initially let on. Why the film tries to hide this, when it was spelled out in the trailer and on the Netflix description, is baffling. Then we learn that Dr. Walden has been dead for years. Next we are told that, as they now want to leave, they need to wait for the wind to change since they can't carry enough oxygen with them across the toxic wasteland and the balloon needs more helium. Sam then inexplicably relates that she knows where they can find more helium, even though she says she has never been there before.
We hear Micah's backstory. He says that he had come to see Dr. Walden, because his wife died. They had both stayed on Earth because they had heard Walden's broadcasts. His wife eventually starved to death, and Micah blamed Walden for giving those who chose to stay behind false hope. Presumably he was coming to kill Walden, but this is never spelled out in full. Micah reveals that since he let his wife die (by hiding supplies so that he could live) he will not let Sam be stranded on Earth by herself and will take her away with him.
Shoehorned in with these awkward reveals is Elon's news that he will be joining the mission to Proxima Centauri, and cannot see Sam for decades at least. This prompts an awkward romantic exchange where Sam (heartbroken by being abandoned by the only other person she knows), in a cringe worthy scene, instigates a sexual encounter with Micah.
Oddly, the whole series of revelations takes place over two or three days. Remember that four day time period until the last shuttle launches? The movie doesn't either.
Despite the movie's attempts to set up some drama, some urgency, and some critical need for something to happen, nothing ever really happens. They don't have enough helium, but inexplicably they can find some. They have only four days to leave, it feels like many more pass. Micah wants to presumably punish Walden, but that fact is never addressed directly or causes any tension between the two.
Even in the leaving, the film shows no real urgency, and when they have a strict hour time limit that they need to stick to, Sam is still allowed to wander off and visit the Greek art exhibit she had been wanting to see forever. You had days, but why wait until the last minute??
Finally, at the end of all this, Sam declares that she will stay on Earth. The end of the film shows Micah flying off to meet the shuttle alone, and Sam, in a voice over message to him, says she is enjoying Earth for what it is and encourages him to tell people to come back and start new lives. She says "we" are waiting for you, and a child wanders on screen with her while they stand breathing the toxic air on a beach.
Wait what? When was Sam pregnant? Did the inoculations work? Why had she never tested it before? Couldn't she have tested it when the storm ripped through her compound? Was that why the whole science experiment was never prepared for crazy Toxic storms like that? Why wasn't there more emphasis on getting to Io? The film is called IO!
In all honesty, the word 'why' would accurately sum up this movie.
Three writers are credited as working on this script, and honestly it does feel like three separate scripts were mashed together to create this story. The idea of an escape from a toxic Earth seems like it was the basis of an original script, but it seems to have been shoehorned in with a script that needed a love story, and then a story about surviving on Earth. But none of the scripts meshed well, and we got this confused mess instead.
One of the biggest let downs was the lack of tension. Though we are told that Sam and Micah need to get somewhere, and are given supposedly strict time limits, those time limits never seem to mean anything. The weather isn't working against them, they never have to escape from a toxic storm again, and even Sam manages to survive her sudden inexplicable breath of toxic air.
The actors were alright. Sam's character is clearly meant to be socially awkward, having only grown up in isolation with her father and mother, and her interactions with Micah do come across that way, with her having no real idea of social norms or proper conversations. Some of it is kind of dorkily adorable, and would make for great character moments in a better script. Micah is supposed to be a grizzled survivor, but seems like he's emotionally cold and numb most of the time. He really isn't given much to work with.
With a minimalist cast, and a short run time some of these interactions might have worked. But really, there's just no story here. The best you can say is that there are characters, and things happen.
Is there anything good about this film?
Well there are some visually impressive moments, the score is serviceable, and the use of set and CGI is effective. Though this is lost in the lack of story.
Ultimately, you should do what the people of Earth did and flee for better movies and leave this one behind.