Drama Film Review

Soul-Searching Film Review: I Origins

July 25, 2014Ben MK

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Science vs. faith...

They say the eyes are the window to the soul. It's poetic, to say the least, but is it a notion reserved purely for romantics, or can that statement somehow be quantified — validated with cold hard facts? For hundreds of years, the debate pitting science against religion has been raging, so just imagine if the two weren't mutually exclusive. It's a weighty idea to consider, fraught with potentially endless philosophical and scientific ramifications, and it's one that I Origins, the second feature film from Another Earth co-writer/director Mike Cahill, aspires to explore.


The story follows the journey of Dr. Ian Gray (Michael Pitt), a molecular biologist who's keenly fascinated with the human eye, as he goes from being a strict believer in facts to accepting that there may be more to our existence than that which can be quantified or proven.

We first meet Ian as a PhD student who happens to be trying to disprove creationist theories, at least when it comes to the human eye. It's Halloween in New York City, and he's at a party on the night of his fateful meeting with Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), the woman who will change his life forever. Wandering up onto the rooftop, a camera slung around his neck — which he uses to indulge in his hobby of taking close-up photos of strangers' eyes — he spots her perched on the edge, gazing at the full moon. A mask hides most of her features — with the exception of her mesmerizing eyes — and though she plays it coy by not revealing her name, her mysterious ways only intrigue him further. They develop an instant connection, share an all-too brief flirtation, and then she disappears into the night.

It's not until weeks later — all thanks to a series of seemingly cosmic coincidences — that he encounters her again, and their reunion sparks an intense romance. It's a textbook case of opposites attracting, as her emphatic infatuation with the unseen spirit world is the antithesis to his logical way of thinking. Yet, their passion for each other seems to thrive on (or in spite of) their differing world views. As fate would have it, though, their relationship isn't meant to be, and events soon transpire that send Ian into the consoling arms of his like-minded lab partner, Karen (Brit Marling).

It's at this point in the film that Cahill has the narrative skip ahead seven years, where we see that Ian has, for better or worse, put Sofi behind him. He's enjoying some well-deserved success with the publication of his first book, The Complete Eye, and he and Karen are now married and expecting their first child. Fate, however, soon intervenes, interrupting the pair's domestic bliss by hinting at an earth-shattering discovery — one that could prove to be the ultimate link between science and religion. But in order to fully explore the startling possibility, Ian must set aside his lifelong beliefs and confront his painful past.

Much of the above plot synopsis has been intentionally kept vague, because, if anything, I Origins is a film that benefits from the element of mystery. Suffice to say, Cahill handles the film's central themes — evolutionism versus creationism and belief versus faith — with a deft touch, orchestrating I Origins' first two acts as a carefully-choreographed build-up to the film's big "a-ha" moment, so that when it finally arrives, it feels genuinely revelatory, not clichéd or contrived. Part of that certainly owes to the film's convincing depictions of scientific research, but the lion's share of the credit goes to the emotional resonance of the performances — especially Pitt's, as it's through his character's eyes that the story is told.

The other two principal actors, Marling and Bergès-Frisbey, shoulder their characters' fair share of the story's emotional weight quite capably as well, with Bergès-Frisbey portraying Sofi as a waifish, otherwordly type of creature — exotic but at the same time somewhat flighty — while Marling plays a character who's Sofi's counterpoint — someone who's just as grounded as Ian, but more emotionally attuned.

Sofi's preoccupation with the spiritual side of life has a good deal to do with what Ian finds alluring about her, but there's also a point in the film where he finds that quality of her's maddening, and it leads into the movie's most heart-wrenching moment. Karen, on the other hand, is there to pick up the pieces, but whereas the attraction between Ian and Sofi arises out of their differences, it's Karen and Ian's shared passion for science that draws them to one another. In the end, it's this trio of performances — a love triangle of sorts, echoing the ever-present push-and-pull between science and religion — that propels the movie forward and keeps it intriguing from start to finish.

The Bottom Line Ultimately, what Cahill achieves with I Origins is akin to what other directors, like Duncan Jones, with his film, Moon, have done: addressed a tantalizing what-if scenario — this time, surrounding the big-picture topic of the very nature of our existence — with introspective and personal storytelling. Consider it refreshing counter-programming to the Summer's usual crop of bombastic sci-fi blockbusters: a piece of filmmaking that isn't just wildly thought-provoking, but that's earnest and emotionally captivating as well.  Ben Mk

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