Sitting down with Io, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I knew this was a story of survival in a post-apocalyptic Earth, and I knew that the cast featured only three people: Margaret Qualley, Anthony Mackie, and Danny Huston. But going in with this new Netflix Original, I didn’t have much of an expectation for how this was going to play out. To my surprise and delight, Io is the kind of science fiction that we frankly don’t see enough of. It’s the kind of soft-spoken, introspective meditation that characterizes some of the best of the genre, yet it doesn’t need a large special effects budget to sell its thought experiment. Io isn’t flashy or perhaps even all that enthralling on its face, but I found myself charmed by the end and filled with a sense of hope that feels lacking even in our pre-apocalyptic world.
In the near future, the atmosphere has turned toxic, presumably due to human activity, forcing the population of Earth to an emergency colony on Jupiter’s moon, Io. However, our story takes place on Earth with a lone scientist named Sam (Qualley), who works with plants and insects in the hope of one day fostering life that can survive the corrupted air. Throughout the film’s first act, we observe Sam’s routines maintaining the home and laboratory she shared with her father (Huston) in one of the last habitable pockets of air on the planet, and we get a sense of loneliness reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s The Martian, only without Mark Whatney’s affable humor to keep us comfortable.
Things change, though, when hot air balloonist Micah (Mackie) lands in response to Sam’s continued radio signals to the outside world. He is on his way to the last scheduled shuttle to leave the planet, the final chance to leave as the Io colony finally gives up hope on Earth. Sam is convinced that there must be a way to adapt to this new Earth, but she also recognizes that the sustainability of her home is perilously close to collapse. So the question becomes: Does Sam stay in hope that she may one day make Earth habitable, or does she leave with Micah to start life in the unknown, reunited with people who have abandoned their home but have found new life among the stars?
There’s a lot of obvious allegorical speculation on the impact that climate change will have on humanity in the years to come, but the beauty of Io, so titled for a sense of longing for an idealized refuge we never see, is that it’s a strikingly grounded and present story. As Micah comes into Sam’s life with a knowledge of the world before the environmental collapse, he sees his hopes as having been lost with the loved ones who stayed on Earth with him, hopes instilled by Sam’s famous father in modern Earth’s dying days. But Sam struggles with losing the only life she’s ever known, the ideals she was instilled with since childhood that enabled her survival for so long in a world she only inherited. It’s this conflict between safety in escape and potential reward through perseverance that makes Io’s central thesis shine, carried through with excellently subtle performances by Qualley and Mackie, who exhibit the tension of opposing ethos but the desperation of people who have been alone too long.
And really, there isn’t much more to say that wouldn’t be saying too much. Io is a film that largely thrives on experience and – pardon the pun – atmosphere, so it’s in living and growing through Sam and Micah’s time together that the richness of the quiet narrative shines through. I will say, though, that the ending is an excellent distillation of the themes that had developed to that point, and it left me more touched than any alternative conclusion likely could have. If you’re looking for science fiction that makes manifest the anxieties of a dying world, our dying world, then Io is a good place to start.