The Origin Story of All Origins Stories

I Origins
(USA, 107 min.)
Written and directed by Mike Cahill
Starring: Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, Astrid Bergèse-Frisbey, Steven Yeun, Archie Panjabi.
Brit Marling as Karen, Michael Pitt as Dr. Ian Grey and Steven Yeun as Kenny in I Origins.

There are so many origin stories at the movies these days. New Batman, new Superman, and new Spiderman (again) litter the screens. It's only natural, then, for a new film to look to the origin of all origins. The root of the matter, however, differs greatly whether one relies on science or faith to explain the full story. Writer/director Mike Cahill confronts the science/faith debate directly in his metaphysical drama, I Origins. The film delivers upon the considerable promise hinted at in Cahill's debut Another Earth, and it asks provocative questions with inquisitive indie flair.

I Origins takes its name from a fun pit of word play inspired by the efforts of its lead seeker, Dr. Ian Grey (Michael Pitt), who studies the human eye. Ian, see, believes that eyes offer proof of evolution and therefore refute the existence of a higher spiritual power. He loves eyes fanatically, studying them by day and photographing them by night. His whole mania for the human eye splits his personality between science and art. Ian’s work in the lab posits him as a person of proof and reason, but his passion for capturing an intangible essence with light through the eye of his camera suggests that he also has a spiritual side.

I Origins almost inevitably invites a lengthy bit of plot summary as the exposition-heavy film builds towards the central quest of Ian’s studies: Are eyes the portal to the soul? (The spoilery trailer embedded below contains the gist of the film both narratively and thematically.) Ian and his lab partner, Karen (Brit Marling), explore the human eye from the origin of unseeing animals, and the science behind biometrics might actually confirm the existence of God.

Ian bounces his test of faith and reason off two contrasting female friends: Karen the scientist and Sofi the believer. Both are eternal optimists—Karen almost unexpectedly and spunkily so—and the two characters add some merry sunshine to offset Ian’s gloomy mad scientist funk. Their bit of faith lifts one’s spirits.

Sofi, played by Astrid Bergèse-Frisbey, is a spirit of the Malick variety. She twirls and poses for the camera, and there’s something about Bergèse-Frisbey that eerily resembles Olga Kurylenko, and her poetic ability to confound Ian’s faith in science with simple wordplay and innocent questions gives I Origins a fleeting ethereality to juxtapose the no-nonsense tenor of Ian’s determined practice. (The overt stylishness of Sofi’s scenes helps compensate for Bergèse-Frisbey’s relative weakness, but Marling gives a strong performance as Karen and has the chops to carry the film on her own.) The film is science and spirituality side by side, and the questions arise like an intense philosophy jam as the romantic relationship between Ian and Sofi inevitably defines itself by the pair’s contrasting ideals and beliefs. I Origins asks deep questions and invites passionate debate.

The film, like the lovers it depicts, inevitably bids prejudices to shape one’s approach to the film, yet Cahill finds a climax for Ian and Karen’s studies that sees science converge with faith. A belief in one necessitates an acknowledgement of the other as the final tests of the film play upon the imperfection of precise science and the impossibility of verifiable divinity. I Origins lets the two beliefs coexist and plays each one off the other. The film votes for science with conversations filled with declarative sentences that are blunt and artless, yet as economical and precise as a science report. The visual motifs of I Origins, however, touch one’s ability to feel, rather than to think, as the images of eyes that recur throughout the film are stirring snapshots. The pairs of beautiful eyes, particularly Sofi’s which the film spotlights, ring of personality and vision. Similarly, the film’s play with a white peacock offers an arresting symbol for reincarnation, especially since Cahill films it with wonder. A tense death scene, on the other hand, offers a haunting depiction of the journey from life to death simply using offscreen action and silence.

Other things in I Origins don’t work nearly as much of some of the film’s finer points do. The play with the number eleven appears prominently in one sequence and vanishes abruptly in the next as Ian looks into other business. Ditto a cameo by William Mapother who appears as a man of faith for no apparent reason other than to let Ian be standoffish to the cloth. Pitt is effectively dick-ish as Ian, and his cold demeanour makes the final turn of I Origins more emotionally effective. The ending of I Origins, however, isn’t nearly as satisfying intellectually as it is emotionally, since Cahill quite firmly aligns the film on one side of the science/religion debate. The film has a great openness as both science and faith co-exist throughout the course of Ian’s investigation, but the final turn all but closes a discussion that best remains open. While Cahill guides the direction of I Origins towards viewpoint, the film ultimately lets viewers decide whether to close the door on the debate for themselves. Accept the film on faith because there’s something to believe in or reject the implied conclusion of Ian’s experiment because it’s too farfetched to believe. Even an origins story like Batman requires a little faith, though, so why not extend the suspension of disbelief to science itself?

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

I Origins is currently playing in the theatres from Fox Searchlight Pictures.
It screens in Ottawa at the Landmark Kanata.

What did you think of I Origins?