Earnest but urgent, I ORIGINS mixes legitimate science with poetic spiritualism

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Rating: ★★★

Writer-director Mike Cahill’s follow-up to Another Earth, I Origins attempts to settle the argument of Creationism Vs. Evolution and asks the big questions of how we got here and what happens after we die. Still bigger questions hang over the film’s genre and intended audience. Is it a romantic drama? An existential sci-fi? Or a molecular-bio mystery? Opening with a series of extreme close-ups on multiple human irises, the endothelium, stroma and epithelium layers are universes unto themselves, and with a similarly all-encompassing story, the film’s vast scope ultimately exceeds its intimate scale.

Ian Grey (Michael Pitt) is a molecular biologist researching the evolution of the human eye whose findings are on the verge of re-writing the origin of the human species and bridging the gap between science and spirituality. For years, Ian has spent much of his time outside the lab photographing the eyes of everyone he meets. One night at a party he encounters Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), an enchantingly exotic model whose religiosity puts her at odds with Ian, whose only faith is reason and scientific fact. Despite their differences, the young couple instantly fall in love and get married soon after. But a tragic accident cuts short their happiness, altering the course of this life and the next, forcing Ian to reconsider his spiritual beliefs and open his mind to the idea of the human soul and reincarnation.

Evolution is a thorny subject for any filmmaker to tackle, but Mike Cahill is nothing if not ambitious, turing the cliché of eyes being windows into the soul into something rhapsodically romantic and linking biometrics to the afterlife. The science presented is plausibly legitimate (all the talk of PAX6 genes may be hard for some to keep pace with), yet also poetic, with fluid framings and abstract emotionality. Ian’s unswerving pursuit of knowledge is earnest but urgent, grounding the film’s high-minded ideas and potential pretentiousness.

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Between Pitt and Brit Marling’s lab assistant, Karen (both sporting chic frames) this is the sexiest pair of scientists you’ve ever seen on screen, though much of that sexiness comes from how Cahill captures the passion and spirit of driven PHD students looking to change the way we see the world. The chemistry between Pitt and the women in his life is the film’s most credible asset in the face of much new age mumbo jumbo, and the initial wordless encounters of Ian and Astrid (seen first in a mask, so that when Ian has bathroom sex with her, he’s essentially making love to her eyes) are charged by powerful attractions beyond human comprehension that lend credence to the film’s unspoken belief in the notion of soul mates.

I Origins is a film with a strong otherworldly atmosphere, though set in the reassuringly recognisable bustle of everyday New York and later, India. Markus Förderer’s cinematography does indeed make the film look like another earth, shot in the namesake tones of its protagonist which occasionally shimmer, and with an air of bohemian decadence that comes from the stylish pair of hipster boffs and the catwalk confidence of a fiery, manic pixie foreigner.

I Origins encourages us to think big and outside of ourselves, but would also have us fill in the blanks afterwards. Striving for profundity with heart on sleeve, it’s thought-provoking without ever probing deep enough, finally reducing the unearthly wonder of reincarnation to a Radiohead song.

First published by Vérité Film Magazine on September 26, 2014

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