Film Review: ‘I Origins’

I Origins Sundance

Cahill's conceptual thriller asks intelligent auds to dive deep, while insisting that they overlook its more glaring plot holes.

I Origins” puts the eyes in sci-fi, recasting human peepers — those proverbial windows to the soul — as the key to so much more than philosophers, scientists or fashion photographers had ever previously considered. In the vein of such divisive cult favorites as “Primer” and “Upstream Color,” Mike Cahill’s crazy-ambitious sophomore feature (after “Another Earth”) refuses to let a modest budget constrain its larger-than-life-itself concept, cramming everything from the existence of God to a new, all-encompassing theory of reincarnation into the guise of a sexy, globe-trotting detective movie that very nearly collapses under the weight of its own mumbo-jumbo.

Add Michael Pitt to the list of the world’s least convincing scientists, as the pouty-lipped dreamer plays Ian Gray, a molecular biology lab student obsessed with disproving the concept of intelligent design by demonstrating that eyes — those most elegantly complex of organs — could have evolved over a series of 12 discreet steps. (Never mind that Richard Dawkins rather elegantly beat him to it as far back as 1986.)

Ian’s approach is so shaky that it takes his new research assistant (Brit Marling, who sounds a lot more convincing in a lab coat than her co-star does) all of five minutes to dismantle his work to date and suggest a new line of study: They should locate a sightless organism with the PAX6 gene and manipulate it, effectively trying to “build an eye from scratch.”

Ian’s experiments are little more than a cover for his personal eye fetish anyway. As he explains over a mesmerizing montage of beautifully textured irises (his personal photo collection), Ian has been snapping strangers’ eyes since he got his first camera as a kid. At a murky college costume party, he spots a mysterious woman covered head-to-hips in black stockings, falls in love with her multi-colored eyes and then loses her after a hasty shag in a downstairs bathroom.

Ian doesn’t believe in fate or luck, so how will this sullen skeptic find his heterochromic Cinderella again? Lo, fate smiles almost immediately on his search, with the universe using a series of significant “elevens” to point him to a billboard featuring a pair of giant eyes — a symbol so loaded it makes even “The Great Gatsby’s” T.J. Eckleburg sign seem subtle by comparison. Turning to Google, Ian discovers the stranger’s identity: She’s a model named Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), and as luck would have it, he spots her on the subway, reflected in a window with an unsubtle infinity symbol etched into the glass.

Rather than recap the rest of the plot, suffice it to say that Ian and Sofi are reunited, enjoying a French New Wave-style love affair that ends rather suddenly in a freight elevator. From here on, the film amounts to a series of revelations designed to blow people’s minds, but Cahill unveils each twist in such dramatic slow-motion that viewers seem to be ahead of him every step of the way. The movie is complex enough that many will want to watch it again, but being able to anticipate nearly all the major plot points (not from the outset, but minutes before they transpire) lends even the first viewing a peculiar sense of deja vu. Call it “I Obvious.”

In the interest of minimizing spoilers, let’s return to the example of the “lucky elevens”: Ian walks into a 7-Eleven and buys a lottery ticket. The clerk gives him $11.11 in change. He gazes down at the receipt, and the time reads 11:11:11. A No. 11 bus pulls up to the curb. Everyone watching recognizes something important is about to occur, and yet Cahill drags out the moment for dramatic impact. It’s enough to give you goosebumps the first time it happens, but after the fifth or sixth such example in a succession that leads right up until the final scene, those tingles give way to tedium. Worse, the tactic makes Ian seem agonizingly slow-witted (as in the “Dairy Farm” scene).

On one hand, Cahill’s key themes — love, faith, reincarnation — offer substantially meatier ideas to work with than your typical studio picture: What if there are a finite number of souls in the universe? Could the love of your life be reborn in another form? Could Hitler? Does reincarnation prove or disprove the existence of God? Do hypothetical questions drive you crazy? “I Origins” engages with all of these issues and more, gradually transforming the skeptic into the believer (a recurring arc in Marling’s recent movies, including last year’s “The East”).

And yet, the film amounts to a lousy sort of magic show, schematically pulling strings to prove its own points. Though presented as a thinking man’s thriller, “I Origins” instead asks intelligent auds to dive deep, while insisting that they overlook its more glaring plot holes. It passes off pseudoscience as philosophy and a passionate montage as true love, lacquering a hit-and-miss visual package with mood music and an overdesigned sound mix. In yet another twist on its title, this origin story leaves things open-ended for either sequels or spinoffs, as audiences demand.

Film Review: 'I Origins'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 18, 2014. Running time: 117 MIN.

Production

A Verisimilitude/WeWork Studios production in association with Bersin Pictures, Penny Jane Films. (International sales: WME, Los Angeles.) Produced by Mike Cahill, Hunter Gray, Alex Orlovsky. Executive producers, Adam Neumann, Rebekah Paltrow Neumann, Bonnie Timmermann, Adam S. Bersin, Jayne Hong, Tyler Brodie, Burton Gray, Michael Pitt. Co-producers, Becky Glupczynski, Phaedon Papadopoulos. Co-executive producers, Cassian Elwes, Sofia Pax.

Crew

Directed, written by Mike Cahill. Camera, Markus Forderer; editor, Cahill; music, Will Bates, Phil Mossman; music supervisor, Joe Rudge; production designer, Tania Bijlani; set decorator, Grace Yun; costume designer, Megan Gray; sound (Dolby Atmos), Kyle Porter; sound designer, Steve Boeddeker; supervising sound editor, Boeddeker; re-recording mixers, Brandon Proctor, Boeddeker; visual effects artist, Michael Glen; visual effects Harbor Picture Co.; associate producers, Dawn Cullen Jonas, Trace Henderson, Priya Nat; assistant director, Willy Friedman; casting, Dilip Shankar.

With

Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Steven Yeun.

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  1. TheSteelGeneral says:

    This review nails it. This whole skeptic-turned-believer theme is not worthy of serious discussion or serious films to start with. The big flaw of the movie is that, even in the face of evidence against it, it does too suggest that supernatural stuff is going on, in the final scenes. Salomina scores 44% on a test where randomness would suggest 33% which is not a whole higher. And it’s just one test, where the researcher is so obviously influencing the subject: He shows loads of disappointment when she gets it wrong, thus increasing the strain upon her.
    Then, all of a sudden, the lift thing happens, which is supposed to prove to us, something from “Reincarnation is real” to “oh wow gawd does too exist!” or? Gimme a break.

    The “Dairy Farm”-scene is sweet in a “seduce the liberals”-way, not in the least because it show case a real person, the only black farmer in Idaho. Which is of itself kind of nauseating, but still. But the big problem is how the protagonist comes to GO to Idaho. Just random images on some eye test which tests for autism suddenly have meaning and …. are all interconnected, people! You best believe it!

  2. Richard dale says:

    Lol. Wow. ” it passes off pseudoscience as philosophy and a passionate montage as true love…” Are we discussing entertainment?? A MOVIE?? I think this movie struck too close to home with the critic, a die-hard evolutionist that is too bitter and stubborn to even watch a “fictional” movie and view it as, just what it is. Entertainment. Had the roles been reversed (beliefs) he would be raving about it. I believe in neither, and found the movie to be thought provoking and confound, a breathe of fresh air in comparison to what this media force feeds us to enjoy and view as “quality”…

  3. Snarkass says:

    Seriously? You are going to bring up Dawkins when discussing a work of fiction? Did you do the same in your review of X-Men or The Avengers? How about X-Men: First Class where they say mutants are somehow immune to the effects of nuclear war? I have yet to meet anyone who did not like this movie.

  4. dennis grayson says:

    I enjoyed the first part of this film very much. Unfortunately I was on a flight returning from austria and did not the second half of the movie. Of what I saw, it wascompelling.

  5. Olivia says:

    I Origins is a wonderfully original, smart film – Mr. Debruge obviously didn’t get it.

  6. Lillie Braudy says:

    I-Orogins sounds fabulous. when is it coming to Berkeley, Oakland or San Francisco- it is my kind of film

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