New beginnings and adventure versus intimacy and connection is the theme of Netflix’s latest straight to stream scifi think piece- IO. It makes sense that human connection is the main theme because this movie was written by a team. Rule of thumb: if you see Writer 1 and Writer 2 that was rewritten because writer 1 kinda sucked, BUT, if you see Writer 1 & Writer 2, this was written as a creative team. In this case, there were three writers working together: Clay Jeter, Charles Spano, & Will Basanta. I can’t imagine how challenging that would be for a film script mostly because I’m very solitary as a writer. I’m an extrovert in every other way, but my ideal writing space is a well-lit isolation cave. What is impressive to me is that Netflix took a chance on these writers because it was their first real feature. Normally, I would make a parenthesis next to the writers’ names, but here they haven’t really done anything prior. The director, Jonathan Helpert, has done short films, never a feature. Despite this being everyone’s first feature, they executed well and attracted some real talent to their piece: Margaret Qualley (The Leftovers) and Anthony Mackie (Captain America: Winter Soldier).
The film takes place in just two locations, has two principles, and essentially just a cameo by a third actor. The special effects were so minimalist that it made Another Earth (Lisa’s Review) look like Star Wars. 90% of the film takes place on a campsite, 5% in an empty neighborhood, and 5% in a museum. This film really ratchets up the intimacy and nothing can make two people closer than not having any other human beings around to distract them.
At first, I thought I was in for some Al Gore environmentalist porn because the film begins with a mass exodus of humanity from earth to an outpost to IO because runaway pollution changed our air to ammonia. Obviously, there’s not enough fabreeze in the world to get rid of that smell. Our heroine, Sam (Margaret Qualley) is up on a mountain campsite where the air is still breathable. She is working alone to further her father’s research to adapt bees and plants to the new atmosphere in order to make the world habitable for humans again. She makes trips down to the city below to scavenge for parts and to finally get decent tickets to see Hamilton. This sounds like it would be dull, but it’s totally engaging because Margaret Qualley is such a talent that she plays the claustophic loneliness so you can feel it yourself.
Sam has a REALLY long distance relationship with Elon her engineer boyfriend who is determined to find humanity a new home. His life is in the unknown and the stars; whereas, Sam’s is one earthbound and lonely. Her loneliness is ended with the arrival of Micah (Anthony Mackie) a much older man than she, but there are obvious sparks. They share an interest in the humanities and mourn our lost paradise. Micah followed Sam’s father’s advice and attempted to stay on earth and survive and adapt, but doing so cost him his wife’s life and anyone else’s who listened to him. He spent years floating around earth on a hot air balloon, seeing humanity’s fall from above. When Micah met Sam, their age difference, the poisoned earth, or the uncertain future didn’t matter because they made a connection and developed concern for one another.
A lot has been discussed about the quasi-ambiguous ending because I suppose people are really good at missing the point. It never was about whether humanity retook the earth or colonized a new home beyond the stars; it was about humans rediscovering their humanity. In fact, the last lines of the film discussed exploration, coming to where you began, and re-discovering your starting point as if it were new because it is: you have changed, you have grown, the meaning has evolved. By the end of the film, Sam and Micah had learned that they were still human. These connections are why we fight a Trojan War to bring our loved ones home because we are connected to them, they matter, and because we are human. The end was not about whether she survived and lived on earth on not; it was heartbreaking because alive or dead, we knew that the roads Micah and Sam would walk would not be together.