Anthony Mackie and Margaret Qualley attempt to get off a poisoned, toxic Earth in this tepid, shapeless sci-fi drama.
The crux of most mainstream stories relies on the major dramatic question, the concept that there is one overriding issue that is introduced in the first act and answered by the end of the film. Of course, not every film has to have this to succeed: many experimental films or character pieces don’t need this structure to succeed, but it is pretty much a requisite of any mainstream film. IO is absolutely a traditional film, but one that lacks the structure necessary for it to succeed. And worst of all, it takes so long to decide what story it is trying to tell that it just becomes an extraordinarily frustrating experience.
IO follows Sam (Margaret Qualley), a biologist and one of the few remaining humans left on Earth. The planet has become too toxic for most life and the air is… well, it’s not entirely clear. It either kills people instantly or makes them sick and then kills them. The remainder of humanity has left the planet to live on a space station orbiting Jupiter’s moon Io. Sam toils away in the Adirondacks, continuing her father’s work to discover how to make the planet habitable for humans once again. However, when her space boyfriend Elon (Tom Payne) informs her that the last ship to Io ever will be leaving in five days, Sam is left to wonder whether to leave or continue her work. This becomes all the more complicated when a man in a hot air balloon named Micah (Anthony Mackie) lands on her property on his own way to the last ship off Earth.
IO is that is a genuine structural mess, which is maybe the film’s biggest flaw. At first, it seems that the plot is whether Sam will succeed in discovering the cure to the diseased air of Earth. But following a huge storm, it becomes whether she will rebuild and try again. Finally, it becomes whether she and her hot-air balloon pal Micah will make it to the last spaceship in time. The glaring problem, though, is that this doesn’t become the clear path that we’re meant to follow until halfway through the film. Plus, they don’t even begin their journey until there is only 20 minutes left in the film.
The characters aren’t that much better. Sam is quite often a very passive character – she doesn’t discover many of the plot-shifting moments and Micah makes some very big decisions for her. She often feels like a character that wants nothing other than to be left alone in her pyrrhic search for a cure, sapping the protagonist of all her potential energy. Even when Micah crashes onto her property, she seems to not really care that he’s the first human she has seen in who knows how long. Micah is no better, seemingly more excited at the prospect of a fresh tomato than new found human interaction. Both Qualley and Mackie seem to have been given the sort of direction that feels more suited towards something as moody as True Detective, not a post-apocalyptic world of pure extinction.
Director Jonathan Helpert doesn’t do the film any favors – in a world that is supposed to be rife with constant threat and danger, there’s nothing to show how dangerous the world really is. When Sam is scavenging in the ruins of New York City there are no corpses, no other humans expressing worry, and no clear idea as to what would happen if she breathed the air. In a later scene, a storm hits the campsite while she is scavenging. When she realizes the storm is approaching, she has no reaction at all. There’s only a moment of bored worry before she ATV’s off into the pouring rain, without a single hint as to the poisonous air and destructive wind that the storm will bring. It is genuinely odd to feel completely fearless about such a bleak, doomed Earth, which only aids in making the film feel like there are no stakes whatsoever.
It’s a shame that IO is so inert, especially since the idea of a tiny cast dealing with the end of our planet could make for a tense and heartfelt potboiler. The very first line of IO seems to hint that it plans to go in that direction, a treatise on man’s inhumanity to man and our role in the destruction of Earth, as Sam narrates: “It’s like we were doomed to destroy our planet; Some say it was because of the increasing pollution. I just call it human nature.” Unfortunately, it seems like Helpert and the screenwriters opted for a tepid, languorous drama that skirts by these bigger issues in favor of purposeless meanderings. Much like the moon of Io, it would be best to avoid visiting this film.