Review: IO: Last on Earth (2019) – The Promise of Survival

Margaret Qualley and Anthony Mackie in IO: Last on Earth

The start of any good story is also the promise of an ending, a conclusion to this chapter, era or life in general. Film plays on this constantly using the idea of the end of the world as a riff on both finality and new beginnings. IO uses the end of the world as a launching platform for this idea of the cyclical nature of life and despite some missteps, the ambition and beauty behind it are something to be admired.

IO tells the story of Sam (Margaret Qualley), a scientist and one of the last remaining humans on Earth. Despite most of humanity leaving for an off-world colony called IO, Sam has stayed behind trying to fix what humanity has done to a ravaged planet. When she comes across fellow survivor Micah (Anthony Mackie) she is left with a choice, join him on the last remaining shuttle to IO or remain on Earth, the last remnant of a dead civilisation.

Despite a lacking 1st act, IO becomes something else once Sam and Micah are together, his arrival marking the beginning of the story proper. Not only an end to her isolation, it also forces Sam to decide who she wants to be outside of her work and a promise she made to her father Henry (Danny Huston). Playing on the idea of faith, not only that the world can be saved but also that everyone has to believe in something to survive is the crux of IO’s story and Qualley in particular plays into this notion of self discovery in new and interesting ways.

The connection the film has to art and culture, things that Sam is too young to remember is how this notion of faith spools out with the concept of an unknown history playing in our heads. The culture she misses is the culture we are enjoying and all the things we embrace today she envisions for herself. It is this belief and faith in something she can’t see but we understand that makes Sam worth following.

While this is a thematic goldmine of ideas, some are half-baked never quite reaching their true potential with the films central romance feeling like something tacked on to give the story life. It didn’t need it. On the other hand the concept of hope echoes throughout lifting Sam and Micah’s story above their generic desires of survival. Sam’s constant desire to know more about the world that came before her gives her a naivety that transitions into real wisdom throughout and Qualley is terrific at bringing out this idea of depressed joy.

Mackie commits to the idea of Micah as this survivor but lying under the surface is a romanticist who loved what the world was but isn’t above seeing what it is now. The depth within him has been sucked out by years on an unforgiving planet but director Johnathan Helpert drags it out of him through some truly breathtaking cinematography, giving us the idea that what was could still be. The peaceful decrepitude of I Am Legend has an extra layer of fog to it, playing into the unknown of what this new world has to offer.

Helpert displays a deft touch in moving his characters around and this two person play never really feels like science fiction, more a character study of two optimistic but downtrodden people. Despite that though, there are times that IO is directionless, heading towards an unknown ending that never feels tangible or important. The romantic notions in Sam’s head about life with Micah always feel like a child’s dream, something you want to believe in but ultimately can’t.

While it is easy to make global warming analogies here, that isn’t IO’s intention. The hope inside Sam and Micah doubles over into the film itself and while it might feel like an indictment, it really plays as a call to arms. Halpert has a faith in humanity, and his characters that they can find a way to change their future and plot a new course. While dreary in its colour palette, this film really wants you to believe in what comes next, a new beginning of sorts and its hard not to see how that is anything but beautiful.

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