Another day, another Netflix original, this time yet another dystopian saga made for a few dollars. Unlike the myriad of others, IO is not a middling affair or total failure, even if it’s eventually confounding for all the wrong reasons. Director Jonathan Helpert’s two-hander relies heavily on adorable Margaret Qualley and dour Anthony Mackie. They’re game performers here despite their lack of romantic chemistry, imbuing the film with a sense of mourning for our lost world that is otherwise absent from a bare-bones script. Sure, there’s a perfunctory opening VO outlining the death of Earth at the hands of relentless pollution. However, like most of them, Qualley’s eco platitudes ring hollow, like studio notes demanding more exposition. IO is more interested in relationships, specifically their purpose for mankind, Plato’s cure for solitude. Photography is surprisingly potent, mixing sun-kissed plains on top a mountain with eerie dead cities at the foot of it. Helpert should be commended for taking his time, allowing the film to breathe as much as possible, such as when Mackie arrives quietly, vividly in a hot-air balloon. Bare-bones or not, his film is intimate and evocative, and that’s never more apparent than when these two characters interact. Qualley’s eyes are hugely expressive if not her voice, and Mackie is the inverse of that. Together they make IO an easy watch, but they can’t stop what’s coming, a couple of third act twists that feel unearned and somewhat unbelievable. The last few shots imply ludicrous science or something ambiguously ethereal. Either way, when it comes to the big picture, IO is in over its head.
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