Does God exist? Is our universe really the product of intelligent design? Is heaven, in fact, for real? 2014 has seen a handful of films—each of varying makes and models—pose these exact questions about faith, and all to varying degrees of success. Son of God and Noah both tackle the subject by drilling down to the source material, while Heaven Is for Real handles its dogma with a healthy dollop of insincere schmaltz; they’re Biblical epics and overwrought family dramas, all, films that directly engage with religious (specifically Christian) iconography in the guise melodramatic entertainment.
Now, filmmaker Mike Cahill has joined in the big screen spiritual ruminations of his peers with I Origins, a mumbly, messy, wafer-thin slice of indie sci-fi theologism. Cahill’s name may ring a bell courtesy of his 2011 debut, the relentlessly lugubrious yet affectingly ponderous Another Earth; his new film again pairs him with Sundance fixture Brit Marling, though only in a supporting capacity (and in a woefully underwritten, thankless role). Rather than collaborate with Marling on scribe duties, Cahill wrote I Origins himself. It’s difficult to tell how much that decision ultimately impacts the film’s non-denominational (yet decidedly non-Christian) notions of belief. Religion barely even plays a part here. Reincarnation is, instead, the film’s object of study.
But I Origins examines that concept by not so subtly pitting it against the more rigid, proof-based tenets of science, and so your mileage with Cahill’s work may vary depending on whether you’re a skeptic or not. The idea of examining faith through the lens of scientific discovery isn’t troubling, per se; the film’s conclusive message may indeed be read as one in which spirituality and the scientific method need not be mutually exclusive (though Cahill’s narrative quite clearly sympathizes with the hippie dippie wonder of the former). What’s far more of a problem is that I Origins essentially plays like two films, bonded together only to reward viewers for having sustained attention spans. When the grand cathartic reveal of the final act is made, there should be an appropriate sense of awe. Instead, we’re left only to ask, “So what?”
I Origins begins with Ian Grey (Michael Pitt), a painfully hip molecular biologist who holds a deeply rooted fascination with the human eye. His life work, in fact, revolves around it. Ian wishes to disprove religious doctrine (again, none in particular) by examining the evolution of the human eye; he’s kind of a spoilsport in that regard, which isn’t helped by the fact that he’s dull to the nines (on the page and as played by Pitt, who feels willfully dispassionate in every scene). Ian is such a bore that he’s only redeemed as a character by the people around him—his goofy and energetic lab buddy, Kenny (Steven Yeun), and his enigmatic, smolderingly beautiful paramour, Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). It’s Ian’s obsession with the eye that draws him to Sofi, and their intense love affair shapes the film’s early going. It’s the only stretch of the narrative that actually has a spark.
And once we get past that stretch, I Origins lags, stalls, and eventually (quickly) peters out. This is where Cahill begins his second film, jetting over from New York to New Delhi to investigate inexplicable ocular shenanigans that may or may not throw a monkey wrench into his stubborn atheism. There’s no appreciable reason why I Origins needed to be both a world-trotting religious thriller, The Da Vinci Code for the hipster set, as well as a romance fueled by the visual poetics of Terrence Malick. Rather than layer Cahill’s yarn with meaning, the split approach instead makes his film feel disjointed, even somewhat aimless. Coupled with its flimsy, boilerplate metaphysical mumbo jumbo, the overall effect is debilitating.
If I Origins ends up a slog, it’s at least occasionally lovely to look at. Cahill’s cinematographer, Markus Forderer, captures settings with a hazy, dreamlike quality, and his photography of the human eye—always shot up close and personal—is so intoxicating (if repetitive) that we, too, can understand and maybe even adopt Ian’s fixation on irises. On the other hand, there are times when what we’re looking at grows so muddied and dim that all visual coherence goes right out the door. Sloppy screenwriting is one thing, sloppy cinematography another; taken together, they’re catalysts for disaster. I Origins isn’t a total train wreck, but it’s neither half as deep as it thinks it is, nor half as engaging as Cahill’s previous work. Another Earth proves he’s talented. I Origins very nearly suggests otherwise.
Director: Mike Cahill
Writer: Mike Cahill
Starring: Michael Pitt, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Brit Marling, Steven Yeun
Release Date: July 18, 2014 (NY/LA), July 25, 2014 (wide)