I Origins is a bracingly venturesome, exploratory work that achieves an exceptional balance between the emotional and intellectual aspects of its unusual story. Very involving and visually voluptuous for a film anchored in a rather arcane, albeit fascinating, area of scientific research, writer-director Mike Cahill‘s follow-up to his impressive, Sundance multi-award-winning 2011 debut, Another Earth, puts exciting filmmaking skills at the service of a story with fulsome romantic, biological and metaphysical dimensions. A smart distributor will be charged with finding a way to connect this special film with the discerning specialized audience that would enthusiastically embrace it.
As distinctive as Another Earth was, I Origins marks a quantum leap in all departments, as Cahill displays an affinity with tactile, glowing Terrence Malick-like visuals but within a far more rigorous and precise framework. His science orientation would seem to serve as an impetus to dig purposefully into the mysteries of his subjects, which here range from something as commonplace as the attraction between lovers to the search for neurological data that could establish information about identity that might in turn suggest a species-wide interconnectedness relevant to what is commonly called the human soul.
The matter of personal chemistry is provocatively covered in the dazzling opening sequence, in which a young man (Michael Pitt) wearing a white doctor’s coat to an edgy downtown New York Halloween party spots a slinky young woman wearing black leather and a face mask; only her dazzling eyes, which he photographs, are visible. She doesn’t say much but very soon shoves him into a bathroom to have sex. When he makes the mistake of asking who she is, she’s gone.
Pitt’s Ian Gray is a biologist pursuing a Ph.D. in eye evolution, with first-year med student Karen (Brit Marling) as his new lab assistant. While he supports Karen’s ambition of researching non-seeing organisms with the idea of experimenting with mutating one species, like worms, to give them functioning eyes, the only eyes that really interest Ian at the moment are those of the mystery woman; his eye photos are all he has of her. Cleverly and with luck, he finds her and they embark on a wild, heady love affair. A smoky, offbeat beauty, Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) won’t say much about her past, but her intuitive, impulsive and vibrant nature brings out the best in her analytical lover, even if they do disagree about his work; he’s out to put the final nail in the coffin of any theories of intelligent design for the universe, while she believes “it’s dangerous to play God.”
Cahill charges the couple’s interactions, sexual and otherwise, with lyrical, intoxicating images and cutting, so that when their relationship comes to a shocking end just short of the film’s halfway point, the loss is devastatingly felt. In the present day seven years later, Ian and Karen are married and on the verge of having their first child. He’s a big-deal scientist with a best-selling book, The Complete Eye, although, as revealed in a startling scene, he still obsesses about Sofi, which Karen maturely accepts. The uniqueness of eyes as a form of human fingerprint has led to their vastly increased use for ID purposes and, beyond that, a vast database of eye photos has opened up far greater possibilities for research in Ian’s specialty.
A discovery made during tests of the couple’s son ultimately leads Ian to India, where the sort of connection the doctor has been seeking may lie waiting. The story’s latent metaphysical aspects are at last pushed to the foreground in a climactic stretch that is simple, quiet and touching.
Cahill deals with big ideas and themes in a way that, gratifyingly, is not pretentious or grandiose. His style and preoccupations certainly place him in a rarified realm of the American independent scene. But the great strides he’s made, dramatically and stylistically, from his first to second film, suggest that he may be one of those shrewd filmmakers who find a way to address even unusual personal interests and themes within a viably commercial context. For now, he is distinctive for his demonstrable urge to explore life’s deepest mysteries — a shared trait of scientists and artists — and his hunch that these mysteries might, sooner rather than later, be revealed by human endeavor.
Pitt, whose career has bounced erratically from mainstream and auteur-driven films to TV and obscure indies, carries I Origin very capably, demonstrating fine range, thoughtfulness and sensitivity in the process. Marling, who starred in and co-wrote Another Earth, lends a credible and appealing down-to-earth quality to her workaholic academic, while Berges-Frisbey, who appeared in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, brings a quicksilver quality to Sofi that makes her both tangible and elusive; she’s one of those women whose looks change based on angle and circumstance, who can look stunning one moment and rather ordinary the next, a quality that piques fascination. Kashish, a young Indian girl who figures importantly in the climactic stretch, also makes an indelible impression.
Craft and technical qualities are outstanding, from the exceptionally luminous work of German cinematographer Markus Forderer and the resourceful production design by Tania Bijlani to the mood-strengthening score by Will Bates and Phil Mossman.
Production: Verisimilitude/WeWork Studios
Cast: Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Steven Yeun, Archie Panjabi, Cara Seymour, Venida Evans, William Mapother, Kashish
Director: Mike Cahill
Screenwriter: Mike Cahill
Producers: Mike Cahill, Hunter Gray, Alex Orlovsky
Executive producers: Adam Neumann, Rebekah Paltrow Neumann, Bonnie Timmermann, Adam S. Bersin, Jayne Hong, Tyler Brodie, Michael Pitt
Director of photography: Markus Forderer
Production designer: Tania Bijlani
Costume designer: Megan Gray
Editor: Mike Cahill
Music: Will Bates, Phil Mossman
No rating, 116 minutes