I Origins (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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I Origins (2014)

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Dr. Ian Gray is a prominent genetic researcher trying to solve the open questions of evolution by examining the development of eyesight.  Through his research he finds answers that only raise more questions.  What if he encounters a spiritual component to his research that can't be answered through science?  Mike Cahill pulls double-duty as the writer / director of I Origins, starring Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, and Astrid Berges-Frisbey.

The testIt’s been a good few years for ambitious science fiction. Europa Report mixed the wonder of discovery with found footage, Prometheus blended decades of sci-fi variations into beautiful cocktail, and Another Earth took indie film sensibility and directed it toward the stars. Mike Cahill wrote and directed Another Earth, and I loved the way it used a scientifically impossible phenomenon to examine one woman’s guilt.

Cahill’s second film, I Origins, shows that Cahill is not done using sci-fi as a storytelling springboard. But I Origins uses harder science to discuss bigger ideas in a more direct way, as opposed to the more unlikely science of Another Earth used to ground characters in their emotional realities. In terms of presentation I Origins wants to use the images to transition between poor dialogue, and Another Earth speaks through its images and uses spoken word more sparsely. I Origins' direct approach is a considerable step back - not one that shows Cahill has lost his touch, just that he could stand to be grounded again.

I Origins works very well in moments where Dr. Gray finds himself haunted by the solution to a problem but can't completely articulate it.

I Origins works very well in moments where Dr. Gray finds himself haunted by the solution to a problem but can't completely articulate it.

I Origins showcases its approach to communication with that title as the film is just as much about identity as it is about its characters research into eyes and how they evolved over time. We’re greeted to many shots of eyes in the opening scene – the trite “windows to the soul” as I Origins reminds us. Eyes can communicate so much but I Origins quickly shows that it’s not going to let those pictures tell the story but let the characters talk it out. This turns out to be a painful mistake as the film immediately devolves into the kind of philosophical nonsense that stoned teenagers get into during high school.

I felt really uncomfortable as soon as the conversation between Dr. Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) and Sofi (Astrid Breges-Frisbey) started on a moonlit balcony. He’s dressed as a doctor – she a stocking-clad ninja who whispers into his ear about what it feels like to meet your true love. Just as soon as they have this meet-cute on the balcony they start having sex in a bathroom. I feared that this would be one of those highbrow films that use elliptical dialogue to conceal the objectification of its female characters and was quickly proven right. In the world of I Origins there is no tragedy or argument which can’t be quickly solved by a romp with the good doctor.

Shots of the oft naked Sofi are later substituted with loving glances by Dr. Gray’s research companion, Karen (Brit Marling), whose most significant plot contribution is to get pregnant. All of this is undercut by terribly broad conversations about whether there is a God or not, what miracles really are, and whether spiritual events can be proved through science. This is a fruitful avenue for conversation but not in the metaphorical broadness that I Origins uses, such as when Sofi tries to question Dr. Gray’s atheism by saying that worms may not be able to perceive light but that doesn’t change the fact of its existence. Never mind that light would still produce heat, but this moment comes after many such metaphors and photos of “miracles” that it’s a wonder Dr. Gray didn’t get sick of her sooner. These moments just highlight how much of a fraud their relationship is as it’s constructed solely as a device to get these two in bed for their forgettable conversations.

What saves I Origins from failing completely is just how damned earnest it is. Sofi may have bland metaphors to share but Astrid Berges-Frisbey delivers them with such conviction and wonder that we half-expect statues to start shedding tears for her. If all the performances were delivered at that level then I Origins might have amounted to a glorious fumble. Yet Michael Pitt, a performer I usually enjoy, can’t help but let his confident sarcasm seep into his voice even when he’s supposed to be vulnerable. This makes his relationship with Sofi feel much more false than the simple philosophy exchange that it already is. Brit Marling is not served well by the screenplay at all as her role mostly consists of looking at Dr. Gray with varying degrees of love and worry.

Cahill's compositions are often striking, if simple.

Cahill's compositions are often striking, if simple.

There are moments of beauty in I Origins that showcase that promise Another Earth held. The sequence where Dr. Gray is haunted by a realization but can’t quite piece it together is a technical triumph of visual reflection and technical mastery topped off by an effective dolly zoom. More thoughtful moments, such as the mid-film breakdown of Dr. Gray, showcase Cahill’s beautiful framing while expressing the grief of a true atheist. The stone and statues hold no promise for Dr. Gray, and it’s a horrible trick to suggest they might.

I Origins earnest heart can’t pave over the bad combination of Michael Pitt’s natural sarcasm, traumatic treatment of women, and shallow philosophical conversations. There’s nothing wrong with hoping there’s more against the bleak skepticism of an uncaring universe. But the beautiful truths of the world are earned with sacrifice and hard work, not plot-convenient tragedies that interrupt bad dialogue.

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Tail - I OriginsI Origins (2014)

Written and directed by Mike Cahill.
Starring Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, and Astrid Berges-Frisbey.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (2) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Has a neat idea, but after awhile, felt like it couldn’t do much else with it except just fall into the same old conventions. The cast was good, though. Nice review Andrew.

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