Surprise, surprise, Netflix has put out yet another low-key, small-cast, post-apocalyptic movie, that preaches about how we should take care of our planet. There was a time when the combined words of "low-key, small-cast, post-apocalypse" would send my sci-fi and deep character-loving side a thrill of excitement. Now it mostly just means a cheap way to get out a tired and impersonal message.
This one smacks interestingly of The Martian Knockoff, except in reverse. There's a scrappy scientist girl named Sam (Margaret Qualley) living in the ruins of Earth where the atmosphere is now toxic. Except on the top of her mountain home where the air is clean, she must always use an oxygen mask. She's alone -- more or less stranded while the rest of the earth has left and is living on a space station in orbit of Io, one of Jupiter's moons. They're looking for a planet to colonize, and her boyfriend writes her to join them. But she's too busy doing scientific experiments on bugs.
|She looked so much like Rebecca Hall to me I was 100% sure she was her daughter or sister. Turns out she's actually Andie MacDowell's daughter.
It feels like Martian lite. At one point she even has a bad storm blow through that destroys much of her hard work. She does science, but it's hardly explained and mostly fictional instead of science-y. She encounters a lot of problems to solve, but they're mostly introduced only so the audience can sweat for about two full seconds before she casually reveals that there's an easy way out after all. But they eke away from The Martian when Micah (Anthony Mackie) shows up. At first, I thought this would be a good thing. She wasn't bad alone, but Mackie's a reliable actor, right?
Well, I dunno, but he made it worse. At least before, it was interesting in that the only dialogue was her log updates or her voice-over reading letters to and from her space-boyfriend. The moment she spoke to Micah it seemed wrong, and from there a giant stall commenced, as everything had to be explained that was implied at the beginning. Their time hanging out lasts far too long before the final act begins and they have chemistry -- but in reverse. Like, every time they were in frame together I could practically see the magnetic fields that repelled them. Few weirder or more uncomfortable things have I seen on film.
|So, so awkward.
Their time together is spent in revealing things about Sam that I'd already guessed and things about Micah that made him worryingly dislikable. Finally, The Martian template kicks in for one last dying breath as they need to travel a great distance in order to get on the last shuttle off Earth. But like the rest of this movie's obstacles, that one also goes nowhere fast. Eventually it settles into it's theme and moral -- that it's about one person trying to save the Earth. Reverse of The Martian again, which was about the whole Earth pulling together to save one person.
And that's where it just plain falls apart. I love a story that's about helping one person because there's intimacy juxtaposed with the grandeur that the life of one person is valuable enough to move the whole world; but one person slaving away to save something that has no soul -- as beautiful and valuable as it may be -- leaves me shrugging. I simply don't care. Perhaps if the film focused more on why she wanted the Earth to survive and made it more character-driven, but her desire seemed to be fueled by nothing, and then by a grasping connection to Greek mythology.
|The scifi was SO low-key that they REALLY needed depth of character to make it work. And... they did try.
So besides the lack of an intimate character-study of fascinating and lovable characters, and being too low-key to include much science or science fiction, the movie does have a pleasantly relaxed tone throughout, and never dives into any of its aspects deeply enough to find anything to irritate me. Rather, it exists on a simple and elementary level to wax poetic in borrowed lines from the talented and knowledgeable, and to preach timidly on a subject none of us are strangers to. It is restricted by it's budget and knows it, but still can't find solid footing to work in on the small scale.
So, as far as low-key, small-cast, post-apocalyptic science fiction is concerned, you'd be far better of watching Sunshine, or The Road, or Young Ones; or even Z for Zachariah, but only in a pinch. None of those are on Netflix, you say? There's still last year's How it Ends to consider, with far better character work and eerie apocalyptic imagery. Io may be calm and unoffensive, but only because it's too meek and simplified to have anything of substance to say.