“IO” is the latest film in a series of Netflix misfires. The low-budget, sci-fi drama directed by Jonathan Helpert (“House of Time”) involves only a duo of characters and limited sets to convey profound (but actually unoriginal) observations about humanity, and crumples quickly under atrocious writing and an exhausting narrative structure.
The story takes place years after a catastrophic environmental collapse on Earth made the planet uninhabitable, forcing most of the population to relocate to a space station on Io, a moon of Jupiter. Sam, a biologist played by Margaret Qualley (“The Nice Guys”), searches for possibilities of continuing human life back on Earth, while Micah (Anthony Mackie, “Avengers: Infinity War”), another straggler on the planet, implores her to board the last shuttle to Io.
Unfortunately, the most notable aspect of the movie is just how boring the concept is. Sam’s research project is laden with melodramatic, blunt voiceover that sounds neither scientific nor moving. Her character is so passively written that it’s a wonder Qualley is able to breath any life into the character at all. The actress does her best to read these lines of voiceover and dialogue with nuance, but they are still rarely more than robotic.
These missteps make up the entire first half of the film, after which point a viewer may find it difficult to stay conscious. The introduction of Mackie’s character, despite providing the film with some momentum, only makes the conversations more ridiculous. The two start quoting Plato and Homer to each other verbatim and analyze the human condition in laughably heavy-handed ways. Without a modicum of chemistry, they are inexplicably drawn toward each other simply to advance the story. They both lose their agency to the whim of the screenwriters, flipping on decisions and convictions that were apparently central to their actions. It’s simultaneously perplexing and miserable to behold.
After what feels like decades of this empty philosophical jargon echoing around, it becomes clear that the filmmakers have no idea how to end the trainwreck in a climactic way. What ensues is, shockingly, a conflict that emerges from thin air and resolves itself with more conjured melodrama. It’s akin to 2016’s “Passengers,” another contained sci-fi film with a halfway-intriguing premise and a bungled finale.
In the end, “IO” plays out as if it were conceived as a TV show, with disconnected plot points that resolve whenever convenient for the writer. The conflicts are so disjointedly episodic that the film is unsure of its own identity, leaping from survivalist drama to romance to science fiction. Even the 96 minute runtime drags beyond belief.
There is truthfully little reason to put oneself through this mess at all. Most casual moviegoers have likely already seen the tropes “IO” has to offer, whether in the abandonment of Earth as a viable home in “Interstellar” or the esoteric fascination of a lone scientist in an unfamiliar environment in “The Martian.” In fact, it might just be easier to believe “IO” is the work of aliens whose only knowledge of humans is sci-fi films from the 21st century rather than a product of actual humans. And with that ludicrous theory in mind, maybe there’s one legitimate reason to watch “IO.”