Movie Review: Netflix’s IO

Netflix's IO- Poster with Margaret Qualley & Anthony Mackie

IO * 2019 * Unrated/~PGish * 1 Hour 36 Minutes

😸😸😸😸½  Rated 4.5 Happy Lap Cats

IO, which is the name of one of the moons of Jupiter, is also a new apocalypse/slow dystopia film from Netflix. The film takes place in a time when a rapid rise in man-made levels of pollution reached a tipping point, which caused a snowball effect, wiping out almost all life on earth and making the air and water even more toxic. Most of the human race has escaped the planet to live in a space colony orbiting IO. Now, years later, the colonists are ready to move on to a new planet, outside of the solar system, so the last stragglers on earth must catch the final shuttle to IO or be left in isolation on the dying planet forever.

Sam Walden, a young scientist, lives on a small farm at high altitude in one of the last few places on earth with breathable air. Her father, who was a famous scientist named Dr Henry Walden, believed that the earth, its species, and humans could evolve quickly enough to survive this crisis, because the earth would also be repairing itself while life was evolving. He was against the migration to the IO colony.

Sam lived on the mountaintop with her father, and now lives there alone, continuing his work, particularly his experiments with honeybees. She has a large greenhouse, water purifier, oxygen tanks, and all of the other comforts of the post-apocalypse home. She continues experimenting on herself, trying to improve her own immunity to the new environment, and makes forays down to sea level, where she scavenges for what she needs and observes the changes occurring in the world.

The only animals shown are the honeybees, though Sam mentions finding some insects which have evolved to suit the environment. Some plants are also evolving to use the water and air in their current condition. The lack of birds, and a dog to follow Sam around, are striking.

Sam also has a super long distance boyfriend, Elon, who has already made the exodus to IO, is in whatever the military has evolved into and is preparing for the trip to the new colony. He urges her to take the last shuttle so they can finally be together, but Sam doesn’t have the necessary supplies to make it to the shuttle launch in time.

Enter Micah, who appears from above one day, floating in his helium balloon. He was a follower of her father’s, who’s stopped by for a last chat. Micah’s balloon can get both of them to the shuttle launch on time.

Now Sam has a decision to make. Should she remain on earth to continue her father’s work, which will probably mean being alone forever? Should she choose to leave and live what passes for a normal life in this era? She’s always lived in her father’s shadow, and now she’s being pressured by Elon and Micah to go to Io. But this will be her decision alone, and she’ll accept the consequences.

IO is too empty to be called a dystopia. The crisis has already happened. What’s left is a nearly abandoned world, where the remaining survivors don’t bother to fight. It’s a slow-paced apocalypse full of the activities of daily life and conversations between two people who aren’t used to having anyone to talk to. Much of the time, one or the other of the characters is alone, so there is no dialogue. It’s a meditative, philosophical film. Biblical and mythological references abound, as well as references to isolated populations of indigenous people.

Sam thinks through her situation very carefully, on many levels. How did the story of Leda and the Swan, an origin story for human-immortal hybrids, originate? What happened to the Egyptians, who stayed behind during the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt? How did the first of the Native Americans create their successful societies? If Sam stays, and survives, will she be the beginning of a new species of humans? Is she Eve, or Noah? Both?

Sam’s father is seen in videos and his ideas are discussed by Sam and Micah. Micah and Elon also give Sam different perspectives and new information to think about. But, in the end, Sam makes her own decision. The bee colony is used as a metaphor, with Sam as the queen bee. The queen rules alone and the mountaintop is Sam’s. She decides for her small colony.

This film is about last-ditch efforts at environmentalism, but it’s also about giving up and letting the world heal itself. However, in giving up, the colonists have treated the planet as the ultimate disposable consumer item and are now shopping for a new planet to consume. You get the sense that it might be better to let the consumers move on.

In the real world, we are also at a tipping point, where pollution is causing climate and environmental changes that will soon be unstoppable. This is a cautionary tale for humans, but a hopeful tale for the earth.

I don’t have any complaints about the film. I have a feeling that the science doesn’t make any sense at all, and it would have been nice to get more context and background for the characters and story, so I knocked off half a star. But this is meant to be taken as a myth or adult fairy tale. It’s not about scientific accuracy, because when the world suddenly tips into a whole new paradigm, some of the rules are bound to change.

Sam looks at books of classical art and mythology to express that some things can’t be explained using the languages of science and math. Sometimes you have to leave that behind. The followers of science and math created the dead world. Maybe treating the world as something more mysterious and beloved could save it.

There are some lovely and thought-provoking images in this film, such as Sam’s little farm, which sits above the poisonous clouds, an exhibit of classical art which is in a museum so derelict it might as well be in ancient Pompeii, and Micah’s steampunk helium balloon sailing though the toxic sky. Then there is the poor, left behind library, which could just make you weep.

There is a steampunk element throughout the film, as Sam lives a 19th century lifestyle on the mountaintop, but must also wear a gas mask and tight black hazmat suit when she leaves, breathing oxygen from tanks and driving ATVs. There is also a bit of cassette futurism, with Sam playing literal cassette tapes of her father’s lectures, listening to recordings of classical music, and using an old computer with a green screened monitor.

IO gives brief glimpses of space, but is otherwise grounded, like the characters. The mountaintop is the earth colony, refuge and experimental space station. Because the mountaintop includes an observatory with a large telescope, the IO colony can be seen from there, even though it can’t normally be seen from earth. This suggests that Sam has a better perspective on what the colony is all about than many of the others.

One of my favorite parts of the film is when Micah tells Sam a story from Plato’s Symposium about the origin of love. According to Plato, and his narrator Aristophanes, each person used to have two faces and two sets of arms and legs. They were happy and complete, all by themselves. But then they angered the Gods, so Zeus used a lightning bolt to split people down the middle, leaving us as we are now, lonely halves of what we once were. Forever after, we’ve wandered the earth looking for our other halves, and when we find them, we call that feeling love, and want to stay together forever.

The implications of the lightning bolt, combined with images from the film, give the soulmate concept an unusual twist, in one possible interpretation of the story.

IO was directed by Jonathan Helpert and written by Clay Jeter, Charles Spano and Will Basanta. The cinematography was by André Chemetoff. The cast includes Margaret Qualley as Sam Walden, Anthony Mackie as Micah, Danny Huston as Dr. Henry Walden and Tom Payne as the voice of Elon.

IO is not the film for anyone looking for an action or monster-oriented science fiction film. This film follows the other side of science fiction tradition, with political and philosophical commentary. It has thought-provoking ideas and symbolism, interesting imagery and a fresh take on a post disaster world.



Image courtesy of Netflix.

3 thoughts on “Movie Review: Netflix’s IO

  1. This is a movie that caught my interest while surfing Netflix. But I was uncertain about spending any time watching it. I usually find movies of this genre to be slow moving and dull.
    Thanks to your excellent analysis, I will now take the time to watch. There’s nothing better than a story with a well-developed concept that’s thought-provoking and has great writing.


    1. The important thing is to go into it understanding what it is and isn’t. It isn’t an Anthony Mackie action movie or a movie about space colonization, as many reviewers and commenters seem to expect. It’s Maragaret Qualley’s film, and everything in it is there to service her character’s arc. I suspect that’s why there’s so much hatred and dismissiveness toward it, and so much confusion about what it’s trying to be. Pure misogyny. Sam is in charge of herself and makes her own choices, but also cares about the men in her life. She’s not rebelling against them or trying to prove herself. There’s no major soap opera drama, either, despite what some would have you believe. The film’s subplots are much more about humanity’s relationships with the earth and the universe, and whether we are capable of change or not. I love it when Anthony Mackie plays dramatic roles, and he’s really good in this, but he’s there to be a muse, not to drive the film. Much like the female love interest often is. I think it throws many people off that Falcon isn’t the star or the hero. He was a large part of why I clicked on it. But, Charles, if you don’t like slow, talky movies about ideas, it still might not be for you. If you decide to watch it, let me know what you think!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I actually love non-actions movies with female-centric roles. One I recently watched on Netflix was an Israeli movie titled, The Man in the Wall. “… wife is confronted with strange revelations that contradict everything she knew.”
        It’s not the slowness of a movie that turns me off when only two characters are on-screen more than 50% of the time, it’s the dull performance of the actors themselves. Far more often than not, I end up disappointed. But not always. Thanks for giving me a heads up about Maragaret Qualley and Anthony Mackie’s performances.
        I will definitely let you know what I think.

        Liked by 1 person

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