In I Origins, writer/ director Mike Cahill uses the old cliche ‘The Eyes Are the Mirror to the Soul’ to make something relatively original. The film is a love story that also tackles the science versus religion debate in a seemingly impartial yet somewhat naive way. More cynical viewers will likely not buy into either the romance or the over simplification of a complex issue, but some good performances and an unusual pace make the protagonist’s journey worth following.
Michael Pitt plays molecular biologist Ian Gray, who believes that creating an eyeball from scratch will once and for all debunk creationism. Everyone has a unique iris pattern, like a fingerprint, which has led to the rise of ocular scanning and a potential future where every human being is catalogued this way. When newborns begin having the same eyes as recently deceased people, Gray’s axiom backfires, as he may have stumbled upon scientific proof of reincarnation.
Gray has two love interests in the film: Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), representing a spiritual side that he cannot reconcile his beliefs with, and Karen (Brit Marling) his lab partner who is the logical life partner choice. Each relationship is given equal importance, implying that you can have more than one true love in life, which echoes the larger idea of science and spirituality being compatible instead of the mutually exclusive belief systems they’re often made out to be.
Despite leaving out massive parts of the story, the above paragraphs almost reveal a little too much. The less you know going into this film, the better. While it may feel predictable at times, many scenes have the ability to surprise, on both narrative and technical levels. If you have any interest, avoid the trailer at all costs, as it basically tells the entire story. This is probably because the premise is a difficult one to market and the structure makes it hard to address the meat of the story without getting into details from the second and third acts. The first act takes up almost half the film and is essentially a love story. Highlighting this unbalanced structure is not a criticism. A film that doesn’t follow a traditional story arc may be a tough sell, that’s why they are rare but that’s also why they can make for very refreshing viewing experiences.
What we see in I Origins is a clear progression of Cahill as a filmmaker in both his concepts and the scale of the production in which he’s executing them as he elaborates and expands on themes he touched upon in his debut film Another Earth. Both address big questions that have floated around as long as we have and relate to concepts that don’t usually exist in our physical world. What makes the films work is that he is examining these big ideas through small, intimate stories, and making the abstract physical. They are very personal projects for Cahill, who wears multiple hats (in addition to writing and directing, he also edits). He was the cinematographer on Another Earth, but this time around he has given those responsibilities to Markus Förderer, who has taken Cahill’s handheld documentary approach and added some stylistic flourishes that make for a very pretty film while also maintaining a spontaneous, indie feel.
I Origins is certainly very reductive in how it approaches the God debate and remains somewhat superficial in this regard. Those who are deeply versed in these issues will probably find the idea of proving or disproving intelligent design by looking at our eyes laughable. But for this reason, the film is very accessible and would be a good one to show to an Intro To Science and Spirituality class (if something like that even exists).