I ORIGINS Movie Review – The Eyes Have It
The phrase “sophomore slump” was created for a film like I Origins, the second collaboration between Mike Cahill and Brit Marling. Cahill and Marling made their feature-length debut at Sundance three years ago, co-writing Another Earth, a poignant, lo-fi, sci-fi drama about grief, loss, and redemption (Cahill directed and Marling starred in Another Earth). Marling had a second film at Sundance the same year, Sound of My Voice (co-written and directed by Zal Batmanglij). Since then, Marling has taken on key turns in the Richard Gere-starring Arbitrage and her second collaboration, with Batmanglij, The East. Batmanglij’s film proved him a deft, talented director, capable of handling weighty themes with high-stakes drama. Unfortunately, I Origins suggests, if not the opposite, then a potential fault-line in Cahill’s approach to his career as an independent filmmaker: Nearly boundless ambition exceeding his grasp.
Unlike their previous collaboration, I Origins doesn’t center on Marling’s character, Karen, a first-year graduate student in a molecular biology program, instead focusing on a senior Ph.D. student, Ian Gray (Michael Pitt). Gray falls into the familiar stereotype of a distracted, absent-minded scientist, an obsessive-compulsive researcher with a seemingly eccentric fixation on the human eye, photographing any pair of eyes that catch his attention. He’s also obsessed with providing the definitive proof against one of (so-called) intelligent design’s major arguments: That the human eye, in all its complexity, could not be the product of evolution. To that end, Gray and Karen spend countless hours looking for what they call an origin species, finding a sightless worm with a particular gene, activating that gene via mutation, and giving it the rudiments of sight. Even then, though, they still have eleven more steps or species, each one a step up the evolutionary ladder, to prove their thesis.
Gray’s eye obsession and his penchant for asking random strangers if he can photograph their eyes proves to be the perfect “meet-cute” opportunity with a young woman, Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), he meets at a Halloween party. She’s wearing a mask at the time, making it difficult to track her down later. Her eyes, used, of course, in a billboard ad, give Gray a key piece of information to locating her. At least at first, Gray’s behavior falls into stalker or stalker-like category, but Cahill sidesteps any criticism of Gray’s behavior (it’s meant to be endearing, not off-putting). One sun-flecked montage later and Gray and Sofi are moving in together, with marriage an apparent inevitability. Not surprisingly, Sofi is everything Gray and Karen aren’t: She’s guided by her emotions not (like Gray believe) her intellect. She also ascribes to a pan-religious spiritualty (with an emphasis on reincarnation).
That Sofi has no friends or relationships beyond Gray, or that she exists narratively to further Gray’s spiritual journey, makes her a “manic pixie dream girl” or the virtual equivalent, all the more surprising given Marling’s co-writing duties on I Origins. Sofi exits I Origins once she serves her narrative purpose, resulting in a seven-year time jump and the complete unmooring of I Origins’ science or science-fiction based premise. I Origins spins off into another genre or sub-genre entirely, the supernatural (or at least strong hints thereof), with a side-trip to the American heartland and a third act set entirely in India with Gray desperately searching for answers to an entirely absurd question and an emotional, if supportive, Karen Skyping in occasionally for additional dramatic effect. By then, though, I Origins has lost all pretense to making any kind of sense, logical or otherwise. It also doesn’t have the emotional payoff or resonance that Cahill and Marling expect it to have. And without giving too much away, the final, hotel-set scene is just one more, last misstep—made all the worse given the exploitative, colonialist trappings—in a series of missteps. Cahill still has promise, though. It’s just a matter of whether he’ll ever fulfill that promise.