Sci-fi love story speculates there’s more to life than meets the eye
Directed by Mike Cahill
Cast: Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, Astrid Bergés-Frisbey
Summer movie season is not the time of year most people rely on for intelligent, well-thought-out science fiction. With stuff like Transformers: Age of Extinction, Lucy and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lined up to dominate the box office, science fiction quickly surrenders to fiction fiction. It’s encouraging, then, to find a low-budget indie like I Origins scrapping it out for a piece of the summer movie pie. If nothing else it’s one of the more offbeat, thought-provoking sci-fi outings you’ll catch a glimpse of this year.
The film comes to us from indie writer-director Mike Cahill, who delivered 2011’s almost-there-but-not-quite sci-fi rumination Another Earth. That micro-budget melodrama imagined what would happen if a duplicate planet Earth suddenly appeared in orbit above our own, leading its characters to speculate on second chances and roads not taken. The science was wonky as all hell, and the story dwelled more on navel-gazing, Lifetime movie of the week tragedies than on the wonders of the universe. But it was definitely original. I Origins finds Cahill tooling around in much the same, heady, metaphorical, highly speculative airspace.
Michael Pitt (great in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”) stars as Dr. Ian Gray, a molecular biologist who is attempting to prove Charles Darwin’s theories by tracing the evolution of the human eye from its most primitive state. The human eye is often held up by religious proponents of “intelligent design” as irrefutable proof of God—a biological construct so complex it could never have evolved over time. With the help of his irreverent lab assistant (Steven Yeun from “The Walking Dead”) and a brainy new intern (Brit Marling, who collaborated with Cahill on Another Earth), Ian sets out to prove his ideas and, as a byproduct, disprove the very idea of God.
There’s plenty of scientific mumbo-jumbo and lots of spiritual hokum floating through I Origins’ DNA, but not to worry. The film knows when to knock off the shop talk. It is, at times, a highly sensual film.
Given his work, Ian is rather obsessed with eyeballs, stopping people on the street and snapping pictures of their unique peepers every chance he gets. (It’s a motif, people.) At a fateful Halloween party, he crosses paths with a mysterious woman with distinctive, gold-flecked eyes. (She’s wearing a costume that covers up all but those striking irises.) Following an all-too-brief erotic encounter, Ian is determined to hunt down this unknown woman of his personal and professional dreams. A series of strange coincidences leads him to the doorstep of exotic model Sofi (the appropriately mesmerizing French-American-Spanish actress Astrid Bergés-Frisbey from Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides). Is it pure luck, or is something akin to fate driving these two together?
The film has a number of twists and turns to it that are quite unexpected and should not be revealed beforehand. Basically Ian is the voice of stubborn reason, while Sofi is the embodiment of touchy-feely faith. As the story continues to blend the romantic and the scientific, Ian begins to suspect that his research might be pointing him in a most unusual direction. Maybe eyes really are a window to the soul.
There’s plenty of scientific mumbo-jumbo and lots of spiritual hokum floating through I Origins’ DNA, but not to worry. The film knows when to knock off the shop talk. It is, at times, a highly sensual film—what with its gorgeous, rainbow-colored close-up of human eyes and its healthy infatuation with the exuberant Ms. Bergés-Frisbey. She gives the sort of fall-in-love-with-her-instantly performance you saw from Béatrice Dalle in Betty Blue or Audrey Tautou in Amélie or Eva Green in The Dreamers. Hers is a face you’re going to see more of.
At its heart I Origins is a fascinating exploration of belief, proof, spirituality, science and the unfathomably large universe in which we live. There’s a genuine sense of mystery building from start to finish, and it’s hard to guess where Cahill is really going with his story. (India, as it turns out.) Thankfully, he’s not building toward some silly, New Age fable. The intellectual and the emotional are balanced down to a molecular level. What looks like an “egotistical agnostic learns the power of the supernatural” tale ends up in neither-here-nor-there territory. That may frustrate viewers waiting for a definitive thumbs-up endorsement of either religion or science. But I Origins is all the stronger for keeping the ultimate secrets of the universe properly unfathomable and just out of reach.
Miracles happen in this film. But they can’t be explained by science, and they sure as crud don’t jibe with any Christian cosmology. So where does that leave us? Thinking hard—which is more than you can say about most summer movies. Obviously there’s more to life than meets the eye, and I Origins heartily endorses the message.
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