by Kathie Smith
The debate between science and religion has simmered since Nicolaus Copernicus dared to hypothesize that the Earth was not the center of the universe. But over the centuries the relationship between the authority of empiricism and potency of faith has been more symbiotic than combative with the respective sides understanding that there is not a definitive line dividing these principles. Organized religion has been fundamental to the promotion and support of the sciences, maybe because there is an undeniable mysticism to pure science that is as gripping as the idea of a greater power. Darren Aronofsky’s Pi was successful in portraying this relationship as a complex web where the closer you get the more the lines between religion and science blur. Mike Cahill takes a different tack in I Origins, however, making use of an either-or scenario between the two fields with failed profundity. Although smart and incredibly earnest, I Origins nonetheless treats our modern quandary on the unexplainable mysteries of life with disappointing didacticism and dubious black-and-white tactics.
Director: Mike Cahill
Producers: Mike Cahill, Hunter Gray, Alex Oriovsky
Writer: Mike Cahill
Cinematographer: Markus Förderer
Editor: Mike Cahill
Music: Will Bates, Phil Mossman
Cast: Michael Pitt, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Brit Marling, Steven Yeun, Archie Panjabi
Premiere: January 18, 2014 – Sundance Film festival
US Theatrical Release: July 18, 2014
US Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Ian (Michael Pitt) is a slouchy, unkempt PhD student studying colorblindness in mice. He’s quick to reveal that he doesn’t believe in anything that can’t be backed by facts and actively seeks to prove that the eyes are nothing but a biological calculation. His outward refutation of grand design seems to be in direct opposition to his obsessive, camera-toting hobby of photographing people’s eyes, an activity that leads him to Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey). At a Halloween party Ian photographs a masked woman’s eyes, which leads to a quick sexual interlude—only to have it end abruptly as the woman bursts out of the room, out of the party, and presumably out of his life forever. Ian is haunted by their encounter and transfixed by the image of her eyes until fate (something we are continually reminded that Ian doesn’t believe in) brings the two of them back together.
Sofi and Ian are philosophical opposites—she’s a free spirit open to life’s intangibles and he’s a pragmatist skeptical about pretty much everything—but connected by an indescribable bond. Upon seeing his lab, Sofi is incensed that he would leave her every day to torture mice. Ian and his inspired understudy Karen (Brit Marling) have discovered a worm without the ability but with the potential (chromosomially) for vision. Their scientific excitement is tempered by Sofi’s sympathy with a creature that doesn’t see, likely because that is how it survives. The pronounced fissure between Ian and Sofi forms just in time for a freak accident, sending Sofi to an early grave and leaving Ian with fiery unresolved feelings.
Fortunately for Ian, Karen is there to pick up the pieces (we should all be so lucky). We flash forward seven years with Ian, now able to comb his hair and wear a bowtie, on a book tour based on his research and Karen pregnant with Ian’s child. When their newborn son has his eyes photographed for biometric identification using iris recognition technology, an existing name pops up in the database. The intricate patterns have been proven to be unique, so the nurse waves off the match as technological glitch. Ian and Karen (scientists in the field, of course) take note, but only question the glitch when their son is asked to submit to some special tests—“I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.” As it turns out, their newborn son is mysteriously linked to a recently deceased farmer. By hacking into a worldwide iris recognition database, they follow a path of discovery using Ian’s years of photographs and find an uncanny match with Sofi’s irises to a girl in India (where this form of identification has indeed been employed on a mass scale).
On the surface, Ian maintains his analytical persistence, wishing to disprove that his son is connected to a dead man or that a part of his dead lover exists in a young girl in India. I Origins defines Ian’s personality in narrow terms, a doubting Thomas without any of the introspection that you might expect from a young man whose life was torn apart and mended back together again. Hints of a more dynamic character are given in the narrative but rarely articulated through Ian. He doesn’t question or embellish upon his unique art-for-art’s-sake pursuit of photographing eyes—perhaps thinking of it as a purely observational catalog. Additionally, the portentous events that initially lead Ian to Sofi after their brief Halloween rendezvous is treated as an epiphany, but one that has the brevity of a hiccup.
Director Mike Cahill fearlessly tackles spirituality, faith, and a notion of life beyond death without getting mired in Christian dogma, but ultimately I Origins’ ambitions are deflated by Pitt’s character, who can’t rise to the occasion. He’s rigorous to a fault, ignoring the opinions of the open-minded women around him—Sofi, Karen, and Priya who helps him on his wild goose chase in India—as if their beliefs and feelings mean little before they can be confirmed by the patriarch. Ian’s foundations eventually crumble, allowing his heart and mind to accept dimensions that cannot be calculated, but it’s too late for us to care. Cahill was able to build a modest sci-fi wonder around Brit Marling three years ago with Another Earth but fails to find the same kind of charisma in Pitt or verve in Ian.
Science is not incongruous with faith and never has been, despite what the Creationists say. In the same way, popular entertainment is not incompatible with complex questions, but it takes a special touch. I Origins presents the audience with a puzzle, but the parameters are so particular and specific there is really no mystery to be solved, with a finale that is as predictable as it is open-ended. (By contrast, the ideas and enigmas in Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color still resonate over a year later.) As polished as the production is, it falls victim to a story that stumbles over its own feet, leaving you with little interest in the movie’s idea of “I” or its “origins.”