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From Earth to a moon – ‘IO’

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The end of the world has been a prime cinematic subject pretty much since cinema has been a thing. Our imaginations are obsessed with endings and beginnings – and a good post-apocalyptic yarn can give us some of both.

So it’s no surprise that we’d get a movie like “IO,” a story of the last remaining people on an Earth whose environment is rapidly decaying beyond our ability to live upon it. It’s about what it means to cling to home even when home is no longer the safe haven we remember it to be – and the consequences of that desperate desire to stay when every indicator is that we must go.

It’s certainly a well-made movie – one of the higher-quality offerings you’re going to find amongst the wealth of original options constantly streaming forth from the Netflix monolith. And it features some good ideas and some solid performances. While it’s a bit lacking in terms of earned emotional impact – soul, if you will – it’s certainly a better-than-decent way to kill 90 minutes or so.

In the near future, the Earth is suffering through a broad environmental collapse. Drastic shifts in atmospheric makeup has led to massive plant and animal die-offs. With every day that passes, there are fewer and fewer places still habitable for humans. A power station orbiting Jupiter’s moon Io has been converted into a colony of sorts; the vast majority of people make their way to it via a global evacuation project known as Exodus.

Sam (Margaret Qualley, “Donnybrook”) is one of the few people still living on Earth. She’s working as an assistant to her father, a noted scientist named Henry Walden (Danny Huston, “Game Night”) who is one of the few who insist that the planet can be rendered livable again. Sam spends her days venturing into uninhabitable zones, scavenging supplies and seeking out evidence of evolving species. She’s also in a long-distance relationship with someone already on the colony, an engineer named Elon (Tom Payne, TV’s “The Walking Dead”) with whom she only communicates via email.

Sam’s isolated life is interrupted by a descending balloon. A man named Micah (Anthony Mackie, “The Hate U Give”) arrives in hopes of talking to Dr. Walden. The interactions between the two start out a bit on the icy side, but they gradually thaw. However, when Sam receives word from Elon that a new mission – one venturing beyond the solar system – will require all available resources to be diverted, the timeline is accelerated. In short, the next Exodus shuttle launched – set to take off in just a few days – will be the last.

Sam and Micah are left with a decision – will they make their way to the launch site and bid farewell to their home? Or will they continue to follow Dr. Walden’s lead and commit to the belief that Earth is salvageable? And what will be the ultimate consequences of their choices?

One of the joys of Netflix is that they’re able to offer up unconventional offerings such as “IO.” The film is basically a two-hander, with Qualley and Mackie left to carry the lion’s share of the action. It’s a high-concept kind of movie that, despite its sci-fi bent, takes place largely in a simple, single location. There aren’t a lot of high-end set pieces or CGI effects in play; it’s driven by story.

And for the most part, it works.

One could argue that the pacing works against “IO” – it certainly takes its time getting to where it’s going. But for a story like this, there’s no need to rush things. Letting events unspool at a more leisurely pace works quite well for a small-scale high-stakes narrative like this. It lets its ideas breathe in a way that isn’t necessarily possible in a more conventional release.

But here’s the thing about small cast films – there’s nowhere to hide. You need everyone to nail it, because there are only a handful of performers available to shoulder the load. Qualley displays remarkable presence for a young actress; she’s all alone for a good chunk of the film’s beginnings, yet still advances the story despite limited dialogue. Mackie’s an underrated talent who makes the most of his chance to carry a film; his take on Micah is nuanced and offers an emotional subtlety that one might not anticipate in a movie like this one. The two of them hold the screen more or less by themselves for huge chunks of time … and do it with relative ease.

There are issues, of course – the slow pace sometimes undercuts the tension rather than heightening it. There’s a tendency toward long, lingering shots that aren’t always ideal fits. The overall aesthetic has moments where it feels inconsistent.

Ultimately, “IO” is a movie that will rise or fall on the strength of the actors at its center … and this pair of performers allows this moon to find some shine.

[3.5 out of 5]

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