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At The Picture Show
July 2014

I Origins

Soul survivor

Fascinating, frustrating 'I Origins' can't stick the landing

I Origins
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Mike Cahill
Screenplay: Mike Cahill
Starring: Michael Pitt, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Brit Marling, Steven Yeun and Cara Seymour
Rated R / 1 hour, 53 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

I don't subscribe to many hard-and-fast rules about filmmaking - what you can or can't do, what works or what doesn't - but here's one: The single most important moment in your movie cannot also be the single worst moment in your movie. That's kind of a dealbreaker. And that goes double if it is also the climactic moment in your movie.

But it is that very moment in which I Origins - already, by that point, kinda hanging by a thread - finally unravels. For a movie trying to pull off a tricky psychological and ideological balance in its examination of science vs. faith, you might have expected it to come apart sooner. Waiting until the last moment is probably better than a lot of movies could have done. But in any case, it finally happens, and whatever goodwill writer/director Mike Cahill had garnered over the previous two hours largely evaporates.

It's impossible for me to go into too many details on exactly how the film falls apart in its final scene. But suffice it to say that the whole movie is clearly and openly building toward something - pushing inexorably toward this moment - and when the moment comes, it is hopelessly unconvincing. Cahill thinks - or at least is trying to convince us - that we have come to a definitive answer. Or something close to it, anyway. It's crafted as a conclusive, emotionally shattering realization and/or a firm acceptance of an idea that, frankly, the film doesn't earn. As much as I enjoyed the relaxed, ecstatic, slow-motion triumph of the climax's aftermath, set to Radiohead's Motion Picture Soundtrack, it plays as if the fascinating questions at the heart of the movie have, in effect, been resolved. They haven't.

Not only that, but the ending also represents an incredibly dishonest treatment of a particular character. It's not progression of that character, but flat-out violation - and, again, not in a way that the movie earns. The film decides to err on the side of emotional stupidity. For a movie so seemingly earnest in its curiosity and uncertainty, in the end it's awfully eager to stampede to a resolution. It doesn't get there organically; instead, it's like Cahill decided to abandon his complexity and thoughtfulness at the last moment and just go with something that would feel right. He provides emotional catharsis without justifying it.

All that being said, I don't want to dismiss I Origins out of hand - if only because its specific blend of hard science, philosophical science-fiction and existential introspection is unfortunately rare in contemporary movies. This is fertile material - there's almost limitless room for exploration - and in broad strokes Cahill does some interesting work with it.

For better or worse, the movie reminded me of Clint Eastwood's Hereafter - itself a noble failure that didn't totally follow through on its ideas - particularly in the way it tries to address abstract or unknowable questions typically associated with faith, but without doing so in a specifically religious way.

The reason/faith conflict in I Origins is primarily between Ph.D. candidate Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) and his enigmatic girlfriend Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey). He's a firm believer in evidence, proof, hard facts; he has little use for religion or any talk about souls and gods. She, on the other hand, believes that humans are simply limited in their perception. She insists there is something beyond - a god, a spirit world, an afterlife, past lives, what have you - and perhaps even that some people have evolved to the point that they can physically sense or experience it in some way. Cahill smartly keeps Sofi's perspective somewhat cryptic and philosophical, and doesn't couch it in any kind of specific dogma.

Even though the two argue about their differences, Ian tolerates Sofi's beliefs and she his because they're genuinely in love with each other. (Your mileage may vary on the relationship, since the way they meet and the way the courtship develops is a pretty typical iteration of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl prototype.)

Ian is studying the evolution of the human eye - he's been fascinated with eyes since he was a child, and developed a habit of photographing people's eyes, even those of complete strangers - with the stated goal of discrediting a key tenet of the intelligent-design crowd. His newest lab assistant, Karen (Brit Marling), is a brilliant researcher in her own right, and together they make a huge breakthrough that just might be enough to change the scientific community's collective understanding of the human eye. (I have no idea how sound the scientific ideas in the film are, but conceptually it all sounds pretty cool.) Of course, this makes for an easy avenue into the science/faith conflict, what with the whole "the eyes are the window to the soul" cliché. (Note: That cliché is, indeed, spoken in a key line of dialogue, and it is as clumsy as it is unnecessary.)

The film studies various other common existential ambiguities - order and chaos, fate and coincidence - with varying degrees of success. One sequence is built on the recurring appearance of the number 11 - Ian is at a 7/11, his bill is $11.11, the time is 11:11, the bus number waiting at the curb is No. 11, and he follows those 11s until finally coming upon a billboard that features Sofi's distinctive eyes, and leads inexorably to their reunion following an earlier Meet Cute - but the implicit idea is pretty much abandoned after that one scene. As important as it is to the plot - and as thematically relevant as it may seem, in a very broad sense - it's also a strangely ineffective diversion.

There are some great scenes in this movie - including a few in the second half that I can't even hint at - and strong work all around by the cast (Pitt is especially good, unsurprisingly). But as confident as the filmmaking is, I Origins too often touches on ideas that it can't, or won't, really delve into, while still feeling the need to give us firm answers that we might be better off without. Cahill's better impulses are too often overruled by his weaker ones.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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