Io Hot-Take: Life and Death in the Mumblecore Apocalypse
The Times They are a-Changing
Ultimately, most stories are about change and transformation. But the message of Io deals with the concept of Change itself. The movie confronts its audience with the hope and despair tied to change. But more so, it tries to update popular understandings of what change and death mean in the context of life. But these concepts are difficult to grasp and despite the movie’s technical proficiency, its slow pace and lifeless world disrupts comprehension.
This is a shame, because it is crucial for us to update our understandings of the world. It is inevitable that we will face massive and unpredictable change in the coming century. It doesn’t matter if the change comes from environmental catastrophe, like it does in the movie, or something else. The point is that we don’t know what’s coming, but we know that something is. We need to update our understanding of the world if we are to make the best of it, and this movie is a flawed but important attempt to fill that gap.
A Quick Recap
Earth is doomed by human nature. An environmental cataclysm ends life more complex than insects. The human population has left to settle the stars. But Sam Walden has stayed behind to continue her father's work to return life to the world. Where others see death, she believes that life will adapt to the changed planet. She dreams that one day she will breathe the air.
But a violent storm destroys Sam's field station and her research. Simultaneously, she receives a message calling the survivors left on Earth to the final shuttles of the planetary exodus. She has four days to depart, but she's committed to stay on the planet.
A traveler named Micah arrives to her mountainside home by balloon. He his looking for Sam’s father, the man who advocated for people to stay planetside. Sam tells Micah that he must wait if he wants to see him. While they wait, Sam and Micah develop a trust for each other. But Micah believes that staying on earth is foolish whilst Sam believes that it is bravery.
There is still no sign of Sam’s father and Micah breaks into his living quarters to reveal that Sam has been lying. Her father has been dead for a year, and even he wanted Sam to depart the planet to find human connection instead. Sam abandons the pretense that she is working for her father and tells Micah that she will leave Earth.
Sam receives a message from her love interest on-board the Io Colony that he is leaving to settle an extrasolar planet. She admits to him that they won't be seeing each other again. They both have different ideas about what Home means.
Sam and Micah are waiting for favorable wind conditions to fly the balloon to the launch site. Whilst they wait, Sam and Micah have sex.
Sam and Micah leave the station to find helium in the ruins of the city. They find the helium and the balloon is ready to depart, but Sam holds back. When Micah tries to collect her, Sam reveals that she wants to stay on earth. She removes her gasmask and breathes the contaminated air. Micah departs for the launch.
Sam sends Micah a message. She is on Earth, waiting for people to return. She has a child and they can breathe. They have adapted.
Children of Gods
Io makes explicit reference to the story Leda and the Swan at key points in the film. Micah even explains the story, which goes a little something like this: Zeus takes the form of a swan and impregnates Leda. Leda gives birth to Helen. Helen grows up and gets married, but is abducted by Paris of Troy. This begins the Trojan War, which ends with the city destroyed and everybody dead.
The meaning, Micah tells us, is that Leda gives birth to the children of gods. But also, from the moment her loins shuddered, a chain of events was set in motion that ends with flame and death.
So It Goes…
So it is with life. A miraculous event sets off an inevitable sequence that can only end with destruction. We see this sequence played out with the humans in the movie. They showed up on the planet, lived according to their nature, and destroyed the planet.
We see this in nature. Put bacteria into a petri dish and they will grow until they eat all the food or despoil the dish with their own waste. Once the miracle of life has begun, its nature will take it to death.
The Bright Side
Returning to Greek Mythology, Io herself was another paramour of Zeus. But where the coupling of Zeus and Leda brought about the Fall of Troy, Io’s lineage gave rise to mighty Heracles. The same Heracles who, among his deeds, liberated humanity’s saviour Prometheus from his torment. The children of gods destroy, but they also save.
The movie tells us that human nature destroyed the planet. But it also reminds us that it’s human nature to seek life and love and company. The strive for unity and companionship is just as natural to humans as the detrimental effects that they have on their surroundings.
This same kind of duality is reflected in the two main viewpoints expressed by its characters: that humanity’s future is in the stars, or that humanity’s future is to be reborn on Earth. The ideas are presented in opposition, but neither is shown to be right or wrong. The movie can accept that both can be right.
As a movie, Io plays with dualities and oppositions but it doesn’t present them as mutually exclusive. This may be a place where people are confused. Movie-watching audiences tend to expect that one side of a duality is shown as ‘right’ and the other ‘wrong’. But a realistic view of the themes in this movie don’t allow for that. Life and Change, by their nature, carry both the seeds of creation and of destruction. To accept one is to accept the other. They are not opposing forces, but rather two sides of the same coin.
Don’t Fear the Reaper
Death is not the end in Io, nor is it in nature. The movie proposes that life comes from death. As a character, Sam stands apart from the rest of humanity by seeing a world being reborn rather than a world dying.
The great cycle of beginnings and ends has been tied to death all throughout human myth. Death was an inescapable part of living. Our ancestors would watch things die, but they would also watch as life sprouted from corpses. They would notice the elderly shuffle off this mortal coil just as new babies came to life. These themes are rich in our stories and Io follows this tradition by taking it to the concept of a dying Earth.
So often in apocalyptic stories, we see people looking to the past as everything dies and changes around them. Characters try to recreate society as they knew it. They hold on to the stories of the way that things were. The characters, and the audience, expect either a redemptive change back to the best of the old ways, or a swan’s song to what has been lost. Rarely do characters accept that the world as they knew it is dead, and that the burden is on them to adapt to a new world or die along with the old.
Io presents us with the idea that death is an inevitable outcome of life. But it closes the circle by proposing that life is an inevitable outcome of death.
Oxygen and Iron
My understanding of this movie was aided by my understanding of Banded Iron Formations. These are a type of very old, iron-rich rock characterised by stripes of red. These rocks tell the same story as Io. Death comes from life, life comes from death.
The story goes a little something like this: in the beginning, the Earth’s atmosphere had very little oxygen. All the microbes breathed without it. But then some bacteria came along that could photosynthesize. The by-product of photosynthesis is oxygen, which reacted with iron in the ocean. The oxygenated iron fell to the ocean floor and formed the red layers in the rock. But oxygen is poisonous to early life, so these bacteria eventually suffocated themselves (and most other things) to death. Then the cycle would repeat: photosynthesis becomes rampant -> oxygen fills the atmosphere -> everything dies -> photosynthesis becomes rampant -> oxygen fills the atmosphere -> everything dies… etcetera. With each cycle the atmosphere of earth became slightly more oxygenated, and eventually there was life that could breathe oxygen. This allowed more complex organisms to evolve, and instituted the carbon dioxide/oxygen cycle that keeps everything alive today.
Banded Iron Formations are a record of cyclic extinctions and a changing earth. They are a testament to the very slow, very gradual process of life changing the planet, and adapting to that change. From our limited perspective of time it looks like humans are ending the world. But from the perspective of the earth, this is just business as usual. Perhaps in a million years there will be alternating layers of human civilization and wasteland held in the stones. In any case, it is just as foolish to think that an apparent end is the end. It’s just a turning of the great wheel.
Coming to Terms with a Changing World
Our world is changing. Everybody can feel it. The old ways are unsustainable and breaking down. Something new is around the horizon, but nobody knows what it is going to be. Our stories reflect an anticipation of these changes.
The apocalypse is in right now, as are stories of change. These stories attempt to teach us what we can expect from our new world and what we may have to leave behind. They try to give a mythical language to the concepts that we need to understand.
To me, Io is a movie that, successfully or not, attempts to broach these concepts to the popular audience. The transition into decay and rebirth is a difficult time that nobody wants or asked for. But the reality can not be avoided. We must adapt to a new world. Adapt or Die.