Netflix has finally recaptured the old video store feel of presenting you with finished movies whose existence was completely unknown seconds earlier. To hell with promotion, or even hype. You want to see a movie nobody you know has even heard of? An environmental parable that’s also a study in why humans need each other? No? Uh.
For its first half hour, IO is a story about a single character, who speaks only once on-screen. Sam Walden (Margaret Qualley) lives in a mountaintop observatory overlooking a dead city. Earth’s atmosphere has become poisonous; the poison pools at lower elevations. Most of the human population has fled to a colony orbiting Jupiter’s moon Io, where a geothermal power system fuels their dreams of colonizing another star system. Once a day, Sam broadcasts a tape of her father’s voice (Danny Huston), inviting anyone left on Earth to join them at the observatory.
These early minutes are not silent, however. Sam’s voice is present in narration long before we see her speak on screen, and she holds an epistolary correspondence with Elon (voiced by Tom Payne), her long-distance boyfriend. Elon has already gone to Io, which Sam studies through the observatory’s enormous telescope. During the days, she tends to her garden and her beehives. The first time we see her speak, it’s an apology to a bee. She’s selected it for an experiment she suspects will be lethal: Immersion in a tank of the poison that ruined the atmosphere.
This poison is a menacing unknown; its properties are shown, not told (a rarity for IO). Fire burns blue or purple in it, and it obscures the sun. When Sam ventures down into the abandoned city, breathing bottled air, she finds that what life remains has mutated. Back at the observatory, she maintains a ritual of burning herself with the poison to build up an immunity.
Sam, in other words, is not quite normal, and this comes to a head when she receives a visitor. Micah (Anthony Mackie) descends from the sky in a helium balloon. It’s a supremely strange visual, and the movie wisely lets it play out in uncommented silence. He’s come to see Sam’s father, but Sam says he’s out. Both of them are hiding something.
The final Io-bound rocket will leave Earth soon, as humanity refocuses its limited resources from rescue to exploration. Micah’s goal is to get to that rocket, but the wind is against him. He spends his days with Sam on the mountaintop, and the two get to know each other. Sam’s speech patterns are odd when she actually has someone to talk to; she pronounces “Io” as “eye oh,” two separate, disconnected syllables. For his part, Micah is carrying around a gun and a flask of unlabeled alcohol. The parameters of their relationship are uneasy and unclear, and the story takes on a gothic quality as it unfolds. On some level, it makes sense that the last occupied house in the world would be haunted.
Micah is older than Sam is, although it’s not clear just how much. The age difference is enough that he remembers the livable Earth from before the poison layer, and she doesn’t. Mackie invests Micah with a dignified futility as he tries to make Sam understand what that better world was like. There are half a dozen events in recent history that this could stand as an allegory for, and it’s a surprisingly graceful touch for a movie with a rocket-bound character named “Elon.”
This is a restrained production of the apocalypse – a global cataclysm shown playing out in the isolated life of a young woman and the hapless stranger who pays her a call. It would seem that some of the narrative beats were budget-conscious: This is a movie that relies on public domain art, public domain music, and public domain literature to flesh itself out. On two separate occasions, the plot goes on the back burner so Micah can tell Sam about the ancient Greeks. Late in the runtime, they examine a painting and she says, “Tell me what it means.” Viewers may be in the same boat with IO‘s plot, but say this: There’s a genuine eeriness to watching people try to appreciate art from behind gas masks.
It’s not clear where IO came from. Director Jonathan Helpert’s filmography otherwise consists of French-language movies, mostly shorts. Writers Clay Jeter, Charles Spano and Will Basanta have grab-bag careers doing assorted jobs for obscure movies and TV shows. Mackie is probably the most famous of IO‘s seven whole actors; he plays Falcon in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. To be candid, it’s been many years since I saw a movie where I didn’t know anyone involved with it by name. I wonder how much it cost, and who willed it into being.
IO can’t always sustain the unease it needs to fulfill its vision of a haunted, ruined Earth. Some significant plot details are withheld too long to be useful; others are never answered. (Why is Sam living in an observatory? Where did Micah get the balloon?) And the ending is a head-scratcher, requiring a more sustained analysis of prior events than viewers may consider worthwhile.
But there’s something here. Sam’s small world is filled with borderline-antique technology – home movies on videotape, monochrome computer monitors, a shortwave radio, audio cassettes. The overall effect is a kind of 20th century baroque, and she is presented as the eccentric heir to humanity’s failures. Micah – older, wiser – simply wants to leave. Sam sees value in the ruins. Viewers may find themselves in similar camps – those who see this as a bad movie with some interesting ideas, and those who see this as a good movie with some interesting flaws.