‘I Origins’ is a film made by very sincere people that wants to be taken very seriously. It even has a handful of decent ideas and scenes to justify that sincerity. Unfortunately, the movie ultimately peddles half-baked philosophy.
‘I Origins’ comes from writer/director Mike Cahill, who previously served those same duties on ‘Another Earth‘. If you’ve seen his debut, then you’ve got a rough idea of the mixture of intrigue and frustration that awaits you in this one.
Michael Pitt stars as a scientist obsessed with the eye, who is also a mild pervert equally obsessed with eyes for a whole different reason. One night at a Halloween party, he hooks up with a French girl in a mask (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), and after taking a picture of her eyes, is determined to find her again. At the same time, he’s also working on a PHD thesis that will use the eye as definitive proof of evolution in order to shut up all those stuffy religious types. He’s been assigned a beautiful undergrad (Brit Marling) to help him along with that journey.
Eventually, Pitt meets that French girl with the beautiful eyes, they fall in love, and she starts preaching spiritualism to the skeptical scientist. Pitt isn’t into her spiritual hokem, but he is totally into her bangin’ bod, so they continue a relationship until she dies in an unexpectedly grisly, but expectedly symbolic manner. Then, Pitt and Marling prove their eye evolution theory and become rich and famous. Years later, Pitt discovers that eye scan technology has found matches between children and dead people that could be loosely linked to reincarnation. He heads out to India in search of what could be the reincarnated soul of his dead French lover, as well as his long lost sense of spirituality. (Ech!)
As you might have gathered by now, from its bad pun title to its unfortunately Radiohead-scored finale, ‘I Origins’ is an attempt from Mike Cahill to get, like, totally deep, man, and maybe even blow your mind and stuff.
Cahill is not a completely untalented filmmaker. He’s good at working with actors, particularly Marling and Pitt (though the less said about Berges-Frisbey’s “acting” the better). He also knows how to shoot a film competently and is clearly a storyteller who aims for big ideas. The trouble is that he seems to be a bit of a flake. Both this movie and ‘Another Earth’ open with intriguing ideas that are never fully fleshed out. The movies are somewhat open-ended in a way that suggests audiences are supposed to fill in the blanks themselves, but that turns out to be a lazy device in the case. The truth is that Cahill’s specialty thus far in his career is dreaming up ideas that typically start with the phrase “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” before he invariably fails to follow through. Instead of getting into the evolutionary science that ‘I Origins’ purports to be about, the film eventually just falls onto the side of dime store spiritualism. The movie is built around a completely sincere line reading of “Maybe eyes truly are a window into the soul” that’s supposed to be revelatory, yet comes off as cringeworthy.
That’s a real shame because passages of ‘I Origins’ are as intriguing as the film desperately wants to be. Cahill does a good job of building a paranoid atmosphere, piling coincidences on top of each other that fold into a plot, and his science vs. spirituality debate is even somewhat interesting at first. Yet despite all the appearances of this being a serious intellectual film, it’s more like a high school philosophy debate that eventually hands the win to the most boneheaded argument.
There’s a chance that one day Cahill will stumble onto an idea for a movie that’s worthy of his ambitions. Sadly, this is not that movie. In interviews discussing ‘I Origins’, Cahill has proudly announced that he wrote the screenplay in ten days. Well, it feels like it. Next time he makes a movie, a second draft might be in order. Even that much extra thought, effort and care would be a major step towards Cahill becoming the filmmaker that he wants to be.