'IO' Review: A Lackluster Drama That Tries Too Hard to Be Something It's Not

On the surface, and throughout the trailer, IO seems like a slam dunk for Netflix. A well-shot sci-fi thriller about the disastrous results of our current real-world problems, with two compelling and likable leads to take it even higher. IO wants so desperately to be that deep-yet-simple genre flick, but somehow falls incredibly short. Instead of a compelling movie about survival and the consequences of our actions, IO is just a bland, two-hour conversation that fails to deliver on any of the promises it makes.

Directed by Jonathan Helpert, IO takes place years after the Earth's fallen into ruin, thanks to the effects of climate change, pollution, and so on. Most of Earth's population moved to one of Jupiter's moons, called Io, where it was safe for human beings to exist. A young woman named Sam Walden (Margaret Qually) stayed behind with her father to continue his research in hopes of finding a way to make Earth inhabitable once again. The two have long lived on a hill that rises above the smog, making it one of the few places capable of sustaining life. After years of research, little progress has been made, and it is announced that the last shuttle to Io will be leaving Earth soon as mankind essentially abandons the planet. A stranger named Micah (Anthony Mackie) arrives at Sam's house with the intention of talking to her father, but soon tells her that he's going to be taking her to the shuttle so they can leave the planet, regardless of whether she still has hope in her research.

The majority of the movie is spent on the hill, as Sam and Micah learn about one another and debate whether to leave the planet behind. While Micah is dead-set on getting them both to Io, Sam holds onto the idea that the Earth can be fixed somehow. There are important conversations to be had here, given the nature of the subject matter, and the clashing ideologies between the two characters should make for some emotional conversations that leave audiences broken over the decisions that have to be made.

But they don't.

Qualley and Mackie show a few signs of chemistry between them, but nothing to make you believe that they're in a budding relationship (whatever it's supposed to be) is remotely authentic. They talk back and forth about what survival means, and why they should or shouldn't leave, but the stakes never feel real. They've known each other for such a short time, why does either one of them care about the end result that much? The film never finds its identity in these characters, which, if you're going to anchor a genre film on a single relationship, is a necessity. IO puts too much into these characters, but never lets them flourish or do anything of value.

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(Photo: Netflix)

This crucial flaw points to perhaps IO's grandest problem. The people behind this movie wanted this movie to be so much deeper and more intellectual than it actually is. The charm, emotion, identity -- basically everything -- get lost in a quest to direct the audience to a deeper meaning. From start to finish, IO is packed with references and parallels to ancient mythology. Every few minutes, Sam looks at an old history book, or brings up mythology in a conversation. The most climactic scene of the film features Sam making her final decision based on a mythological story of how life on Earth began. These poorly explained allegories are meant to enhance and elevate IO into something much bigger, but all they do is distract from the plot itself. It's easy to see that the filmmakers are trying to get at something; the problem is, it's a massive headache trying to follow those rabbit holes.

At the end of the day, it's hard to say that IO is a really "bad" movie. It's beautifully shot, the dialogue is all right, and there are a couple of exciting sequences when Sam travels into the abandoned dark zone. But it's certainly not a good movie, that's for sure. If you watched the trailer for IO, you were likely sold on a gripping sci-fi thriller about the last two people on Earth. This movie isn't remotely close to what was advertised, so, while there are definitely worse things you could watch on Netflix, it's best to significantly temper your expectations before hitting play.

Rating: 2 out of 5

IO is now streaming on Netflix.