Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Mike Cahill is one of the most ambitious filmmakers in the business. His debut feature, Another Earth, was a riveting, thought-provoking science fiction drama that utilized an ingenious premise and emphasized tortured central characters looking to better themselves. That film also starred the glowing, powerful Brit Marling, who has worked on terrific features like Sound of My Voice, Arbitrage, and The East over the past couple years. Their latest collaboration, I Origins, is an uneven, strangely compelling film that far exceeds its own ambition. It’s a film measured by its central character’s stubbornness and resilience toward finding scientific answers in a world that acts in callous, mysterious ways. That man is Ian (Michael Pitt), who studied as a molecular biologist for his doctorate. He loves the idea of human eyes acting as not only true signifiers of self due to their originality, but also as a way to disprove religious believers who insist that there is a Creator who individually makes every human being.
His work focuses on the development of irises over the millennia and the transformation from eye-less organisms to the most sophisticated form of sight on this planet. He coordinates with his lab partner, Karen (Brit Marling), a fledgling student that aims to unravel the mysteries of the universe alongside Ian. She’s a loyal, intelligent woman that is equally as stubborn and introverted as Ian can be, hiding her emotions and letting science dictate her days. Ian’s obsession with eyes, however, leaves Karen doing most of the work while he tracks down a girl he met at a party that fascinated him. She had gorgeous eyes that made him idolize her, and a strange encounter with the number 11 leads him to discovering her work as a model. He finds out her name is Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), and they immediately rekindle their love and get married.
The story then moves to Ian discovering that his child may have irises similar to a recently deceased man in Idaho, only then for him to realize that Sofi may indeed have the same eyes as a young girl in India. It cannot be true. As his friend Kenny (Steven Yeun) says, “That’s scientifically impossible.” No logic points to irises being repeated over time, unless that establishes some sort of connection with the mind and soul. Karen even asks at one point if the eyes act as a window to the soul, something that she would’ve previously thought implausible but now grows steadily realistic. The dichotomy between science and religion has been tackled more appropriately in better films, like Robert Zemeckis’s underappreciated classic Contact. There, Jodie Foster’s character experiences what can only be deemed a spiritual encounter in a wormhole since no one else saw what she did. Here, the film uses simplistic notions of both religion and science undermining the other, only to realize they can work together.
The performances at the heart of the film elevate the jumpy, haphazard material. Michael Pitt is a quiet, formidable force in every role he takes, providing a gravitas to the most middling scenes. He acts well alongside Brit Marling, a wonderful presence that makes the most of what becomes a small, supporting role after a strong introduction. Astrid Berges-Frisbey is marvelous as Sofi, giving the character a dramatic heft despite minimal development. She acts as more of an idea rather than an entity herself, but she assumes an occasionally thankless role with tact. Cahill’s film asks for intimacy to draw out the tension in the script. This mostly means that the romance between characters takes up the meat of the story and that the intrigue of the central idea falls to the wayside. It’s a shame since there are philosophically strong questions to be asked in a new way from his ideas. He’s a talented, bright presence behind the screen, and even if I Origins fails to fully achieve its ambition, it’s an inconsistently noble effort.
Grade: ★★★ (out of 5)