The latest science-fiction offering from streaming giant Netflix is a remarkably sombre drama set on a toxic planet Earth, one that is mere days away from being completely abandoned. As the final few expedition ships prepare to set off towards Io, a moon orbiting Jupiter which could inhabit human life, young scientist Sam Walden (Qualley) desperately searches for a sign that her homeworld isn’t beyond saving. She faces increasing pressure to pack up shop from a boyfriend who is lightyears away and a traveller named Micah (Mackie) who turns up on her doorstep in a hot air balloon. As you do.
Speaking purely from a visual standpoint, this film is a real treat. Director Jonathan Helpert uses CGI quite sparingly, instead opting for practical sets and locations which bring a sense of lived-in realism to his post-apocalyptic world. The cinematography by André Chemetoff is stellar from start to finish, capturing shots that are suitably gloomy and yet frequently beautiful. As a Netflix original film with a tiny cast, it would be safe to assume that the budget for Io was relatively small, but not once does this become apparent on-screen.
Certainly, on a technical level this film is a display of professionalism, but narratively it leaves a lot to be desired. Qualley gives a solid performance in the leading role, portraying a character who is sometimes endearing in her naivete, although occasionally veers into gormless territory. That said, when challenged with carrying lengthy scenes on her own and effectively delivering lines through a bulky gas mask, she succeeds at both. With this in mind, the problems with Qualley’s character stem more from the plodding script than her acting ability.
Her (very) long-distance relationship with boyfriend Elon completely fails to register, communicated entirely in the form of letters voiced unenthusiastically by Walking Dead star Tom Payne. What could have been a much-needed emotional plot thread misses the mark entirely, leaving the non-existent chemistry between Qualley and Mackie to take centre stage. The scenes they share are at best a tad awkward and at worst mind-numbingly dull. The problem with Mackie’s performance is shared by the dreary score, overly subdued for the most part despite occasionally flaring up in a few jarring moments.
The subpar characters could perhaps be forgiven if the plot wasn’t so severely lacking in purpose. The first half of the film tediously meanders with no sense of direction until about halfway through; almost impressive considering the runtime is a lean hour and a half. It eventually rushes through its unsatisfying resolution in the final twenty minutes.
There was definitely potential in the basic ideas this movie presents, given that thought-provoking stories about our planet’s looming environmental collapse are needed now more than ever. Unfortunately, the slick cinematography can’t prevent the film from buckling under the weight of its dull script, laborious pacing and forgettable characters.
NETFLIX ORIGINAL | DIRECTOR: JONATHAN HELPERT | SCREENPLAY: CLAY JETER, CHARLES SPANO, WILL BASANTA | STARRING: MARGARET QUALLEY, ANTHONY MACKIE, DANNY HUSTON| RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW