Movie review: Io

(image courtesy IMDb)

Pop quiz!

The world is ending, yes again – once is understandable, two is just careless and beyond that, well – and you have one last chance to get aboard a ship that will take you out to the moon of Io, orbiting Jupiter, around which sits all that is left of humanity aboard what was a gigantic power plant meant to save us all while we were still fighting to stay on planet Earth.

Do you (a) Rush to the spaceship to join your boyfriend who, it must noted, seems more in love with the glories of pioneering planetary exploration than you, despite the cutesy email signoffs, or (b) Take your own sweet time, eating vegetables, glorying in the wonders of a newly-hatched queen bee who should be alive because the planet is toxic and having rather fecund sex with a man you’ve just met?

In most apocalyptic tales, there’d be little hesitation – get on the damn spaceship, for only death and tragedy lies behind on a planet doomed to a slow, lingering death by oxygen starvation.

But in Io, a Netflix original, an appellation which presages either a boon or bust scenario with little in-between, with the clock ticking down to the departure of the last Exodus ship to the titular moon, Sam Walden (Margaret Qualley), daughter of a famous scientist who preached that the Earth could rebound from its toxic death sentence thanks to the wonders of evolutionary life, seems content to mosey on down to the finish line.

Partly that’s because she is content with her life in the enclave she and her father, who seems mysteriously and perpetually absent, have created for themselves, a place where life-sustaining gardens grow, mutagenic bees keep plants alive and exploration into “The Zone” or the lower reaches of the valley in which a ruined New York-ish city sits; but largely because she believes in the gospel of Dr Harry Walden (Danny Huston) who fervently believed that humanity was not with humanity not yet, and vice versa.

(image via YouTube (c) Netflix)

But the arrival of balloonist and once-would-be teacher Micah (Anthony Mackie), the latest, Sam believes of the once-innumerable disciples who worshipped at the feet of life-beats-all father, changes everything … save for Sam’s lugubrious approach to life which carries no sense of urgency save for the ongoing desire to validate her father’s belief in the power of life to adapt and change.

With four days until the launch, and no sign of the winds needed to push Micah towards the launch site, he and Sam talk, debate, fix and eat things, content in their growing intimacy and closeness which is only punctuated by the occasional chance discovery that suggest Dr Walden may not have been wrong after all.

Of course, the prevailing orthodoxy is that he was wrong – after all, humanity wouldn’t be camped out on a space station near Io if his ideas had yet borne fruit in any meaningful, obvious fashion – but Sam, despite finally agreeing to go with Micah up, up and anyway, remains a believer deep down, too attached to her father’s ideas and Earth itself to give up on the place just yet.

Io, as you might have guessed then, does not have a whole lot of action and adventure stuffed into its relatively-short 1 hour and 40 minute running time (despite what the trailer might suggest), and yes, at times, it is easier to mock it’s lackadaisical approach to making it to the source of supposed salvation than to relax into it.

But overall, this quietly-understated film make the point that the obvious answers to the something may not be the only answers, a philosophical idea that seems a tad indulgent when life hangs in the balance but which also resonates in an age in which we are facing more than one great existential crisis.

The sense that Micah and Sam may stay behind and began a whole new kind of life on beleaguered planet Earth is a compelling, if cliched one, but Io doesn’t choose to go down the obvious route necessarily, leaving you guessing about which way things will pan out, for our newly-minted couple and the planet itself.

(image via YouTube (c) Netflix)

Granted, it can feel a little too-slow moving at times, especially when at the 16 minutes to go mark, Sam takes a much-delayed trip to the Museum of Art to check out an exhibition entitled “Modern Myths”, only to be called upon by an anxious Micah who wants to get aboard the last ship leaving Dodge, his lingering belief in Dr Walden’s gospel of life-sustaining pretty much snuffed out.

But much like films like Signs, which took a very domestically-small approach to a big story, in its case alien invasion, Io is content to stay in the self-contained world Sam has created for herself, one in which escape to Io is a possibility but not the only one, much to the consternation of Micah and Sam’s boyfriend Leon (voiced by Tom Payne), who writes to her aboard the Io ark.

It will likely feel too self-contained for anyone who likes their apocalyptic tales epically-bad-ass and edge-of-the-seat in nature but it works, mostly, thanks to Qualley’s ability to mirror a world of thought and considered self-belief on her quietly-expressive face.

While director Jonathan Helpert and writers Clay Jeter, Charles Spano and Will Basanta haven’t crafted the perfect film, there is something meditatively-appealing about Io which reflects the push-and-pull that such a decision would invoke.

Yes, you want to live and if Io is the only option, then let’s get aboard the last spaceship; but again, this is home, it’s always been home and leaving it comes with pain and a severe sense of loss, despite what breathlessly-optimistic Leon might believe.

Io captures this struggle beautifully, turning what might have been a simple rush to the finish line, been-there-done-that story into one with some emotional richness and interior thought about what makes home and whether entrenched belief is enough to sustain you in the face of countervailing orthodoxy and showing us that while the apocalypse might feel like the end, it doesn’t always mean that it has arrived and all hope is lost.

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