I Origins is the second film from writer and director Mike Cahill, who previously brought us the low-key and beautifully-acted 2011 sci-fi drama, Another Earth. I Origins has a similar sensibility, in that it’s intimately shot and muses on fundamental existential themes – this time love, grief, guilt and the possibility of life after death.
Michael Pitt plays Dr Ian Gray, a scientist who’s set himself the task of charting the evolutionary origins of the eye. A staunch atheist (we know this because he reads Richard Dawkins books) Dr Gray aims to prove that the eye isn’t the product of a divine being, as creationists believe, but rather the result of billions of years of evolution. While Dr Gray’s still a young scientist studying and researching in mid-2000s New York, two women happen to appear in his life.
The first is the fiercely intelligent Karen (Brit Marling), Gray’s lab assistant who seems to know even more about science than he does, and a mysterious model named Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). Appearing at a party with her elfin eyes peering out from behind a strange black mask, Sofi immediately bewitches Dr Gray. Sure, she has some far-out ideas about God and the afterlife which run counter to Gray’s atheism, but no matter: it’s love at first sight.
Then events take an unexpected and dark turn, and Dr Gray’s once unshakeable faith in science and rationality is given a decisive rattle. Could new research into the makeup of eyes provide the proof of reincarnation?
Another Earth introduced a director with a real flair for drama and capturing a thoughtful, melancholy atmosphere on a tiny budget. Cahill repeats the trick here, as his observant, roving camera casts familiar scenes in a fresh and arresting light. We’ve seen people meet and fall in love at parties and in subway cars plenty of times before in cinema, but Cahill makes these moments seem fresh, partly because his tone is so slippery: I Origins’ first act has the structure of a romance, but the tone of something more ominious. The first blossoming of romance seems somehow foreboding. In Cahill’s hands, even a lottery ticket purchase seems to hint at some cataclysmic event to come.
Eventually, that event comes to pass, and it’s masterfully handled: a flash of unexpected horror that is vaguely akin to a giallo movie. It also brings with it a quite powerful emotional pay-off, which like so much of the film’s first half, gets us over the fact that the sequence seems vaguely familiar from other movies.
Unfortunately, it’s this mid-point event where I Origins’ plot also spins off in a more frustrating direction. All the little details, which seemed like dreamlike non-sequiturs at first, turn out to be signposts for later events. White birds, photographs of statues, Dr Gray’s faintly creepy archive of close-up eye photographs – they all turn out to form a part of I Origins’ disappointingly contrived tapestry.
Before we know it, the film’s morphed from an intimate mood piece with plenty of things in common with Another Earth, to a kind of detective movie that takes in such disparate locations as an Idaho dairy farm and a bustling community centre in the middle of Delhi.
In terms of acting, I Origins is difficult to fault. Michael Pitt holds the screen as Dr Gray, turning in a gentle, thoughtful performance even as events drift into absurdity. Likewise Marling, the star of After Earth who gets a smaller role here, and Berges-Frisbey as Sofi, a woman who seems so fragile and unearthly that you fear she might snap in the breeze at any moment. When she tells Gray that she’s an alien (no, this isn’t a spoiler), you almost believe her.
Regrettably, I Origins is brought low by some of the contrivances of its story. There’s a scene which involves three members of the cast, a laptop and the bringing together of a series of convenient plot points, and it’s the kind of exposition-heavy moment that can easily pull a viewer out of a movie. Then there’s another collection of scenes where Dr Gray suddenly hops on a plane and travels from New York to Idaho on what to this writer felt like the slimmest of pretexts: something to do with a picture of an anonymous-looking diner.
In terms of acting, cinematography and tone, I Origins is an accomplished film, but its story’s a real problem. We can sense Cahill moving his characters around like pieces on a chess board, putting them in certain places because his story requires it rather than because their actions make logical sense.
Having typed all this, it seems unkind to give I Origins too much of a kicking. Cahill seems to be in the process of perfecting his own brand of philosophical sci-fi here, a heartfelt amalgam of Solaris‘ meditative atmosphere and Primer’s scientific rigour. Stanislav Lem’s Solaris (and its various adaptations) had a rational man haunted by an ethereal lover, and both explore themes of faith, love and death. But where Solaris moved deftly and with grace, I Origins moves with less grace from point to point than Solaris, but it starts off with style and masterfully-wrought intrigue.
I Origins ends with a hint of a much larger and intriguing sci-fi story to come. Despite this films flaws, we’re looking forward to seeing what the director does next.
I Origins is out in UK cinemas now.
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