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The IO Ending Explained-Life Finds A Way

As we learned from Jurassic Park, don’t underestimate life, because it always finds a way.

Io Margaret Qualley
Courtesy of Netflix

This tiny little science film from Netflix that premiered yesterday was better than it seemed to be upon first viewing. 

IO had its problems, and it wasn’t exactly 2001:A Space Odyssey.  In fact, it was more like The Titan, but it did have several things going for it, including a heaping dose of hope.  This tiny little science film from Netflix that premiered yesterday was better than it seemed to be upon first viewing.  The positives stand out.  The two-person cast is excellent.  There are a few other bit players but they are hardly in the movie and thus didn’t factor into the quality of the film.  Margaret Qualley’s Sam Walden is odd, desperate, and utterly believable.  She has been isolated with only her father for so long, and then completely alone following her Father’s death for a year.  That lack of social interaction and single-minded focus on survival will affect a person.  As such she is awkward and rude on occasion.  This subtle off-putting behavior lends a real sense of honesty to the film that would have been absent if Qualley had portrayed the girl as more likable.  She is similar to Natalie Portman’s Scientist from Annihilation.  They even study similar things in nature.  Io is what Annihilation would have been if it were missing all the New Weird elements of Jeff VanderMeer’s novels. 

Anthony Mackie is great as well.  He also applies a light touch to his character’s nuance.  Instead of engaging in constant navel-gazing or bouts of anger he is reserved and almost flat.  The Earth of this time is no place for histrionics.  The story concept is interesting.  With all the climate change discussion it’s very probable that something like this could happen.  There is very little time wasted on the particulars of this world-ending event.  What we know could best be described as the cliff notes version of Earth’s poisoning.  Oxygen has become scarce and what replaces it is something very noxious.  None of that concerns Mackie’s Micah who is heartbroken and angry over his wife’s death.  He only knows he blames Dr. Walden, Sam’s father for giving him false hope.  Micah has immense guilt that is directed at anyone but himself initially.  He has come to confront Dr. Walden and leave on the last shuttle from Earth to Io where humanity has made its last stand.  When he finds Sam instead, they must evaluate their faith in each other, love, and ultimately themselves.

That leads us to the ending.

There really are only two possible explanations, and both offer a version of hope mixed with a deep wellspring of despair.  Sam, shortly before her and Micah are to leave the city for the balloon launch point decides she will stay on Earth and trust that her body has adapted to the new atmosphere.  We have seen that the atmosphere everywhere but her pocket of land on the mountain is toxic.  It had changed so drastically that it killed off millions of people before the survivors escaped to Io.  Much to Micah’s dismay, she removes her oxygen mask, and the scene ends with a misty view of Sam on a beach with what appears to be a young child.  

She is not willing to abandon Earth and the beauty it’s inhabitants once created.

The simplest explanation, of course, being all the earlier exposition from Sam about insects mutating and pet pigs surviving against all odds was laying the groundwork for her mutation as well.  She had already witnessed that adaption in other creatures and her father’s stalwart faith in life was instilled in her.  She is not willing to abandon Earth and the beauty it’s inhabitants once created.  Her one night with Micah on the mountain produced a child who also bore the same mutation.  Sam knew after receiving a letter from her boyfriend Elon she would not be leaving for Io.  There was nothing there for her.  She asks for one night with Micah and says “We have to”. 

At first blush, it’s a plea for intimacy from a girl who is starved for affection.  It more likely is a plan that was hatched in a moment of grief to somehow get pregnant, or at the very least experience sex before dying alone on the planet.  This way she can honor both her belief and the vision of her father who comes to her explaining human interaction is more important than science.  The letter written to Micah and narrated by Sam seems impossible without Elon’s rigged system.  That being said, years later it could be assumed someone had figured out another way of communication by then.  The letter could also be a message in a bottle delivered to an inky universe with the hope of one day being discovered.

The other outcome is more melancholy.  Sam took off her mask and died.  The hazy recollections are nothing more than her last moments before death.  It was her dreams that led her to stay.  The dream that she would walk the Earth unscathed by the new air or that Earth would heal itself.  Earth was worth risking everything for.  The final scene has a very dream-like quality that could be a product of either Earth’s new atmosphere or a trick of a failing mind.  The letter she narrates to Micah is her final hopes.  As she dies in Micah’s arms, he leaves her and departs for Io.  The letter could have been his hopes for a better world as communicated in her voice.  The voice of hope for him.  

The ending is up to you.

Life on Earth has already shown an ability to survive in places they should not.  The sea life that lives at depths of the ocean in freezing water with crushing pressure should not live.  Conversely, the creatures that live near hydrothermal vents thrive in temperatures of 400 degrees Celsius in sulfur-rich waters.  It’s not just bacteria that lives in these extreme habitats.  Worms, fish, frogs, insects, birds, and spiders all have changed to be successful in their uninhabitable environments.  If that is possible, Sam’s lung adaptation may not be all that far-fetched for humans.  What once seemed extreme will become the norm.  It all depends on your perspective.  

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