Film - I Origins

I Origins

Ren Zelen remembers I Origins from last years Raindance Film Festival...

One of the functions of Art, is to act as a catalyst towards asking those awkward, unanswered questions and scrutinizing our response to the unknown or the uncomfortable. Any movie that is brave enough to examine the relationship between science and spirituality in such an unapologetically sincere way, and yet remain engaging and undidactic, is deserving of my respect.

I Origins was the opening movie for the Raindance Film Festival and is now on general release in selected cinemas. It is Mike Cahill’s second film and is a metaphysical conundrum in similar vein to his first, 2011’s Another Earth. What sets this film apart (in addition to its glowing cinematography) is that I think very few young directors nowadays would have the nerve or ambition to examine spiritual notions so candidly, without chickening out and hiding behind a veil of irony, sardonicism or satire. Ardent and entertaining, I Origins deserves to be one of the most discussed indie films of the year. If the ideas inherent in the interplay of science, spirituality and sex, three of the most divisive subjects in human history, don’t excite you, you’ve clearly never had any of those intense, prolonged (and usually late-night) conversations analysing and debating all of those subjects.

The movie concerns Ian Grey (Michael Pitt) - a biologist pursuing a Ph.D. in eye evolution. With the help of first-year student Karen (Brit Marling, who starred in and co-wrote Another Earth) he is searching for the genetic switch that prompts the creation of photosensitive cells, in hope of finding proof to comprehensively discredit the long-standing argument for the existence of an ‘intelligent designer’ that claims that certain natural objects — most commonly the human eye — are inherently too complex to have arisen through evolution alone. Lab-assistant Karen suggests a new approach to the problem: they should locate a sightless organism with the PAX6 gene and manipulate it, effectively building an eye from scratch. While he supports Karen's ambition of mutating a primitive, sightless species to give them basic functioning eyes, the only eyes that are really significant to Ian at that time are those of the mystery woman he has had an encounter with at a Halloween party. The woman was covered head-to-toe in black. Her face mask reveals only her heterochromic eyes, which he photographs. But after a hurried sexual encounter in the bathroom, he loses her. But this encounter has affected him on a level he can’t quite comprehend – certainly not a rational level. He becomes desperate to find his mystery woman. After an inexplicable series of coincidences he is led to a billboard advertising French cosmetics. The billboard depicts only a pair of lovely female eyes – they are unmistakably her eyes - he recognises her gaze - impassive, hypnotic. He tracks her down, she is a model called Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) and an impetuous, heady romance leads to a marriage proposal, which coincides with a major breakthrough in the lab - and then to a tragedy which will change the course of events.

The movie isn’t perfect – one has to suspend one’s disbelief and overlook some scientific jumps which might not bear close scrutiny, some attempts at humour seem incongruous. Also, the two leading female characters in the movie are clearly meant to be opposites, and disappointingly display the inevitable clichés. Marling initially somewhat overdoes the ‘intellectual female scientist’ bit – Karen is a workaholic and wears a lab-coat and specs (like her boss) so she is obviously practical and intended to be taken seriously. Meanwhile, Sofi is a spontaneous creature of impulse - sexy, exotic, free-spirited and unpredictable. The women are mind and spirit – emphasising the dichotomy between rationality and instinct, logic and intuition. Grey finds himself irresistibly drawn to Sofi, despite her contrasting beliefs to all of his intellectual endeavours. The chemistry of sexual attraction is enigmatic and irrational, and often not the choice that logic would dictate. Michael Pitt (whose own physiognomy can put any French actress’s pout to shame) carries I Origins very capably, demonstrating fine range. He plays a man entrenched in his scientific beliefs forced to deal in the intangible, with thoughtfulness and a bruised kind of sensitivity.

To give director Mike Cahill credit, he doesn’t give us easy answers. An ensemble effort by its cast - the poignant Pitt, Marling, Bergès-Frisbey and Steven Yuen (of The Walking Dead) allows the film to become a subtle commentary on love, spirituality and science, without ever offering definitive answers - leaving the viewer to come to his or her own conclusions. Much like Ian itself, it’s a ‘Grey’ area. I Origins doesn’t harbour any favourite theories, but instead, the film offers a platform for conversation and analysis which should leave the viewer thinking and perhaps looking at things a little differently for a while.

The film-craft and technical qualities are exceptional, from the luminous work of German cinematographer Markus Forderer, the production design by Tania Bijlani, to the mood-enhancing score by Will Bates and Phil Mossman (incorporating well-chosen tracks by Radiohead, apart from others). Mike Cahill’s artistic intentions might be described as a cinematic lens focussed onto the vagaries of human perception – here at least, putting the ‘eye’ into sci-fi. I Origins is an intriguing examination of our attitude to science, spirituality, interpersonal relationships and the ties that bind us all together, wrapped up in an intriguing detective story. I’d advise you to go and take a look.

Image - Raindance.