Every month, a slew of sci-fi thrillers, rom-coms and documentaries dribble out on Netflix — most with little or no fanfare. “IO,” from director Jonathan Helpert, is the streaming platform’s latest attempt to enter the cerebral sci-fi market. Like “Altered Carbon” and “Mute,” “IO” is a shallow pass at futuristic melodrama: a disposable post-apocalyptic tale of tragic love.
Set in a near future where Earth’s atmosphere toxified to the point that it is uninhabitable, humanity has fled to Jupiter’s moon, Io. A few humans remained on Earth at the behest of environmentalist Henry Walden (Danny Huston). His daughter, Sam Walden (Margaret Qualley), carries on his scientific legacy after he dies. She dedicates herself to restarting life on Earth until she meets Micah (Anthony Mackie), a wasteland wanderer who reminds her of the joys of human connection and encourages her to abandon Earth and join the Io colony.
The early scenes in the film focus on Sam exploring her environment while expository narration brings the viewers up to speed. For the first 24 minutes, she’s alone with only a couple of beehives and recordings of her father to keep her company. We’re supposed to pity Sam, at least a little. But her isolation doesn’t engender sympathy — She seems content with a life of intellectual solitude. And though the lonely opening is necessary to contrast her social state at the end of the film, it doesn’t make her meandering strolls through desolate cityscapes engaging. We learn that she’s clever. We learn about her boyfriend Elon, who left Earth and now lives in the Io colony. And we learn that her father’s optimism colored her view of the world.
When Micah arrives, the film shifts focus; instead of dwelling on moody, mist-obscured landscapes and Sam’s scientific endeavors, Helpert espouses the power of love and human connection. We’re treated to overwrought monologues from Micah and Henry about the subject, and not a moment too soon; Sam’s space-bound boyfriend embarks on a decade-long trip, ensuring the end of their relationship and allowing viewers to feel comfortable with Sam and Micah’s budding romance. God forbid our purehearted, noble protagonist cheat on her boyfriend, who’d rather see the stars than reunite with his girlfriend.
The movie devolves from there as Sam and Micah hookup in a scene that is downright creepy. It begins with Micah peeping on Sam in the shower — ah yes, love — and results in Sam coming on to Micah, who is clearly weirded out by the encounter. Until suddenly his protestations — “I can’t,”— are eclipsed by Sam’s plea — “We have to.” It’s a flimsy justification for two characters, no matter how lonely, to get together. Yet, we’re supposed to take that pedestrian pass at romance as a culmination of their individual social struggles. And of course, they have sex: a moment that plants seeds for the trite and infuriating final shot of the film. There’s an appropriate air of desperation around the scene — both characters lost and lonely and desperate for human contact. But, the uncomfortable execution overshadows the admirable attempt at nuance.
Mackie and Qualley don’t sell the struggles of their respective characters or their romance. In part, the lifeless script is to blame. The characters act in inconsistent and frustrating ways: One moment, Micah will burst into a room like the Kool-Aid man on a bad bender and shout something at a bewildered Sam, and the next he’ll gently recount Plato and philosophize on the meaning of love. His character is divided. Of course, it makes sense for the lone survivor of an immense disaster to lose his temper every now and then, but Micah’s outbursts don’t feel earned — they feel random.
It’s a shame — both actors are more than capable. Qualley spent years on HBO’s “The Leftovers” as a nuanced, broken teenager, while Mackie displays endless charisma in the “Captain America” franchise. None of that experience translates to “IO,” though; every stolen glance and admission of affection boast all the romantic flair of a bowl of oatmeal.
“IO” is about humans coming together, people changing and the joys of possibility. But for all that, the central romance falters, in part because of weak performances from two capable actors and in part because of a weak script that promotes an insipid breed of barely digestible romance.