Stories about the end of the world tend to focus on one of two things: either stopping the apocalypse, or escaping from Earth just before terran life goes to hell. What we rarely see is what happens to those who stick out the apocalypse, which is where Netflix’s new sci-fi film Io begins.
In the near future, human activity has turned the atmosphere toxic, killing all animal life and a majority of humans. The remaining population now resides in a makeshift colony aboard a space station orbiting Jupiter’s moon, Io. The film focuses on those who remained on Earth, a meditative setup that Io can’t quite mine for deeper meaning.
Io centers on Sam Walden (Margaret Qualley), a scientist who hopes to make the planet habitable again. We first see Sam traveling through an abandoned city. Everywhere she looks there are abandoned buildings covered in moss, and the film makes good use of its limited CGI budget to make you believe this was once a place full of life. Sometimes all you need is the sight of a lone person in a grey landscape surrounded by empty buildings to set the mood for a post-apocalyptic tale.
For the first half hour, Io is a one-woman show for Qualley. Sam lives in one of the few remaining pockets of air on the planet, in the house she shared with her father (Danny Huston). She meticulously studies bees, genetics, and the atmosphere, using precious downtime to email her boyfriend (curiously named Elon), who resides on the Io station. Qualley sells the loneliness and desperation of her situation, fixing her home and experiments after they fail, or after a storm wreaks havoc. She speaks through voice-over about her experiments, which doesn’t work as well; if you thought Matt Damon talked a lot about engineering in The Martian, prepare for even more science jargon, but with less of the zingy delivery.
Sam’s plans are thrown into disarray with the arrival of a man in a hot air balloon. Micah (Anthony Mackie) is on his way to catch the last shuttle out of the planet and on toward Io, which he sees as a more permanent, and distant, home. Mackie adds a sense of urgency to the film, even if director Jonathan Helpert slows the drama down to a glacial pace; Sam isn’t sure whether she wants to leave with Micah and reunite with her space-boyfriend, or stay behind, where her future involves injecting toxic materials into her stomach to adapt to this new Earth.
There’s no sense no sense of urgency in making the big decision. After Micah’s arrival, we get 40 minutes of long gazes, landscape shots, shots of long gazes at landscapes, exposition, and the inevitable blossoming of a relationship (built upon long gazes). There’s also time for several conversations about Roman gods, starting from the moment the film’s title comes up (Io was one of Jupiter’s lovers). Meanwhile, the ticking clock that could mean life or death goes mostly unheard.
Mackie and Qualley have enough chemistry to be the only two people we physically see during the film (Huston mostly provides some voice acting), but vacant dialogue gives them little to work with. The three credited screenwriters, Clay Jeter, Charles Spano, and Will Basanta, can’t imbue the lengthy, meandering stretches of the film with poignancy however dire the situation. There are hints of ideologies clashing; Sam is insistent on saving her planet, while Micah’s reflection on the world that conveys a deep sense of grief that comes with watching everything you love being lost to the environment collapsing. This isn’t enough to raise the stakes, and instead, Io resorts to a forced relationship and secrets each character hides for no reason other than to force a conflict.
There is something to be said about Io’s portrayal of poetry, classic paintings, and the culture that would be lost if humanity ever leaves Earth, but as with much of its runtime, this thought is lost among the many long gazes and talks about mythology. Io starts as an interesting alternative to the bigger-budget sci-fi films about the apocalypse, one that relies on dialogue and atmosphere rather than effects, but just like the Earth of the film, its atmosphere is not built for human survival.