Sci-fi movies generally fall into one of two main categories: the big-budget explosion-a-minute rollicking thrill rides, and the world-view-shifting big-question-posing “thinker” tales.  When a genre film doesn’t fit squarely into one of these two categories, it can sometimes leave viewers scratching their heads as they try to categorize and process the movie.  Such is the case with Netflix’s newest offering, ‘IO.’

On the surface, it’s a fairly standard post-apocalyptic tale with a bit of a twist.  The Earth is dead; she’s not in the process of dying and only the brave actions of cavalier scientists and/or flyboys can save her, the planet is already kaput.  The best minds of the generation have tried and failed to save our environment; all that was left to do is leave and try again somewhere else.  That’s what the Exodus program was; years ago, almost the entire population of the human race took off in hundreds of ships and set a course for the existing human research colony that was orbiting Jupiter’s moon, Io.

The Earth is abandoned and almost completely dead; only small pockets of breathable air exist high in the mountains.  Flora and fauna are practically extinct, and the human-designed artificial infrastructure of cities and roads are crumbling.  Akin to a candle whose wick has reached the very end of its usable wax, the planet’s existence as an incubator for life is on its last gasp before being completely extinguished.

Existing as possible the very last person on the planet, scientist Sam Walden (Margaret Qualley) carries on the work of her famous scientist father (Danny Huston), desperately performing experiments and conducting research to see if the planet is at all salvageable for life as we know it.  In contact with the IO station, Sam discovers that the decision has been made to stop sending shuttles back to Earth to pick up stragglers; the final Exodus shuttle leaves in 4 days, and if Sam chooses not to take it, she will be stuck on Earth for the rest of her life (however long that may be).

Sam broadcasts the news to the rest of Earth, in case anyone else may be out there listening; surprisingly, one person is.  Micah (Sam Mackie) arrives in his Helium-powered balloon, and together the duo makes the difficult decision to take the shuttle to Io.  The trip to the launch site is perilous and long, however – will the two be able to overcome the obstacles, both physical and mental, and make it to their desired destination?

IO anthony mackie margaret qualley

‘IO’ is a gorgeous film, of that there is absolutely no doubt.  Netflix didn’t skimp on the budget, giving great scenes and detailed looks at both primary aspects of the Earth in decline: the hauntingly empty abandoned cities with their haze-stricken decay and the expansive mountaintop views of a smoke-shrouded world in all its creepy beauty.  A few nice telescope-tunneled views of the Io research station from afar and a quick look at the original hundred-ship exodus from Earth round out the special-effects sci-fi bits.

At only 95 minutes long, you would think that the film would move along at a fairly brisk clip, but to be completely honest, I found myself getting bored and checking the time elapsed/remaining ticker on more than one occasion.  I enjoy a great “thinker” movie, to be sure, but the “big idea” that ‘IO’ was trying to provide seemed to continually escape me.  Of course, the message about the environment and mankind’s self-ruination and crystal clear, but these are basic tenets that have been showed in a good amount of other films; what’s missing here, for me, is the unique idea or singular takeaway that can help this film stand out from the rest.

With only three actors in your entire film (and Huston only shows up briefly in prerecorded videos and flashbacks), the audience’s engagement will likely live and die by their performances.  Both Qualley and Mackie give very competent performances but, being completely up-front here once again, both performances came across to me as very monotonous and rather flat.  Likely this is due to instructions given by director Jonathan Helpert; when you find yourself in a situation where you are effectively resigned to your fate, the excitement and emotion likely drain from your words and actions, and that makes sense, to a point.  But even in moments where emotion and drive would be called for – nay, demanded, such as when the duo decide to make the arduous and time-sensitive journey to the departing shuttle – neither ever show any sort of passion or urgency to make sure they can literally save their own lives.

The saving grace of ‘IO’ is the intimate nature of the story’s presentation: the planet is doomed, the billions of humans and animals that once lived on it are dead or departed, it is literally the end of the world – but it’s the relationship and teamwork of two people that will make or break their personal survival.  It’s not an action-packed thriller or a “big question” type of sci-fi film;  it’s a slow-moving piece where the few characters that do exist on screen make questionable decisions and are borderline-likable.  A positive visual presentation is handicapped by these script and narrative issues, ultimately leaving viewers with a decidedly average film.