Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) is a molecular biologist primarily interested in the function, capability, and evolution of the human eye. He’s worked on curing color blindness and takes photos of people’s eyes in his free time, but it’s his latest project that sets him on a spectacular course. Hoping to eliminate the sharpest arrow from creationists’ quiver of arguments against evolution (and for intelligent design), he sets out to map the various stages of human eye evolution. Karen (Brit Marling), a first-year student assigned to his lab, excitedly assists the project by searching for a currently sightless species that nonetheless feature the genetic material needed to create even the simplest eye.
Running parallel to Ian’s work in the lab is his newly blossomed love life with Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), a girl he meets at a Halloween party. The mask she wears prevents him from seeing her face, but some quality time spent bumping and grinding together atop a toilet combined with her memorable eyes makes the experience unforgettable for him. His quest to find her is aided by a seemingly predestined series of numbers, and soon the two are deep in love. He’s a pragmatic scientist, and she’s a believer in spirituality and fate, but after tragedy strikes those two worlds come together in unexpected fashion.
That’s more plot description than I normally like to share, but I Origins is a potentially dense experience in both its data-heavy narrative and existential themes. It never feels excessively so though, and instead the science becomes only as complicated as you allow it to be. The science riffs a bit off of true facts and discoveries, but it moves beyond the basics to explore the poetic concept of eyes being windows to the soul.
Most films strive simply to entertain, and that alone is a noble purpose that admittedly isn’t achieved as often as it’s attempted. Some films though aim for something more. They want to educate or provoke discussion (with others or even with yourself), and while that’s no more important of a goal than entertainment it is a far less frequent one. Writer/director Mike Cahill wants to leave his audiences feeling and talking, and as he did with his debut, Another Earth, he’s hoping to do so with a story that combines science fiction with an emotional tale about what it means to be human.
Cahill accomplishes his goal here thanks to a script that’s unafraid to embrace the occasionally obvious or cheesy moment in pursuit of a greater truth or larger emotional payoff. As the pieces begin to come together and grow increasingly pregnant with possibility, the emotional effect grows with it. Even easily predicted turns or results carry a surprising weight as events unfold. It’s rare for a film to tackle the topic of science vs religion with such intelligence, heart, and lack of bias (in either direction).
While Cahill’s script and direction are the film’s framework the core of it is present in its performances and score (by Will Bates and Phil Mossman). Pitt has always been more of an interesting actor than an affecting one, but here he trades in past quirks for a comforting and appealing warmth. It never weakens his character’s scientific resolve, but it allows him to be a human beneath the lab coat. Marling once again shows a talent playing a character who seems chilly on the exterior but hints at something softer within, and Bergès-Frisbey convinces as a woman who sees beauty in things the rest of us take for granted.
On one hand, I Origins is undeniably built off of a somewhat silly concept, and like Another Earth it’s a film that will understandably not work for everyone. It’s an odd dichotomy though in that a movie built around scientific theories requires such a leap of faith by viewers for it to reach its intended goal. It’s a leap I was happy to make.
The Upside: Fantastic blend of science and emotion; beautiful imagery; thought-provoking; offers an emotional high
The Downside: Occasionally hokey and cheesy; revelations aren’t equally surprising or compelling
On the Side: I Origins won the Alfred P. Sloan prize at Sundance. Mike Cahill’s debut (Another Earth) accomplished the same feat in 2011 making him the only filmmaker to win the award twice with consecutive features.