I ORIGINS (2014)
Movie Review by Dan Keohane
Not too long ago, I discovered a gem of an independent science fiction film called ANOTHER EARTH (2011), written and directed by Mike Cahill; produced and co-written by the film’s lead, Brit Marling. See my review here. When a new work by Cahill was released, I ORIGINS (2014), it immediately went on my radar to watch and review. Finally, here it is.
Does I ORIGINS live up to its predecessor? No, not really. It’s an interesting little film, just not nearly as gripping in plot and characters as ANOTHER EARTH. In fact, as I explain below, it is a movie with profound, but largely unexplored, potential.
Michael Pitt (SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS, 2012) plays Ian Gray, a graduate student researching the evolutionary development of the eye. Every animal’s (including human’s) eye pattern is unique within a billion-to-one ratio (something like that, I never wrote down the specific number), much more than fingerprints. Ian is obsessed with eyes, taking pictures of them whenever he can. It’s a hobby and clinical obsession with which he slowly builds a database of unique eye patterns.
Some say the eye is the window to the soul. Ian doesn’t believe in a soul, and hopes his research will prove him right. His subjects range from mice to blind, single cell organisms, used to uncover the evolution of this starkly unique physical trait. More than scientific curiosity, Ian wants to disprove the idea of an intelligent designer. There is no God, or higher intelligence controlling the universe. Everything happens by chance, every trait and physical characteristic a random turn in evolution.
Why he feels the need to disprove anything is never said, not specifically, except that as random as it can be (genetically-speaking), life should always be viewed rationally. And to him, the concept of an outside intelligence guiding events around us is as far from rational as one can get.
Pitt plays the role with a sullen, brooding manner which fits the character. Ian is a socially reclusive (for the most part), opinionated, and highly intelligent scientist with a strong sense of what is the right way to see the world. He has little patience for anyone who thinks differently. Pitt does well with the character, and has a decent presence on the screen, but Ian is not a very likeable—or relatable—person, so we never have much of a connection to him as a viewer.
After meeting, then losing, a woman he makes a strong connection at a party, Ian finds her again weeks later when a seemingly deliberate series of events around the number “11” lead him to her. Sofi (played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey—PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES, 2011) is his polar opposite: physically, emotionally and spiritually. She moves through life nurturing a strong spiritual sense of everything around her. They were destined to be together, she explains, implying they may have been together in previous lifetimes. Ian rebukes this idea. In fact, any time the subject of a supernatural influence arises in conversation, he gets defensive, even condescending in his reply. Still, she patiently explains that his moment will come when he is face-to-face with something bigger than him, on a spiritual level, and Ian will need to decide whether (or not) to accept it.
Berges-Frisbey portrays the best character in this film, full of life and comfortable in her own skin. She adds much-needed light to the otherwise routine existences of the other characters. A third significant character, who is quite opposite of Sophie, and so much more like Ian, is Ian’s lab assistant Karen, played by Brit Marling (who, as I’ve mentioned, was the lead in ANOTHER EARTH). Along with being able to keep up with—and sometimes exceed—Ian’s brilliant mind, Karen is very much attracted to him.
When Sofi dies in a rather clever, and coolly grotesque, manner midway through the film, I ORIGINS gets a much needed boost of, well, something interesting. Until this point, the only scenes which felt to be moving the plot along at a decent rate were whenever Sofi was on-screen. Her death adds a bump to everything that came before, giving the viewer a chance to be shocked and think, Oh, ok, here we go, things will happen now. In this scene, Pitt shines as Ian, who holds his new wife’s bloody body in his arms.
When the story cuts ahead seven years, Ian and Karen have married and have a new baby. His research is complete and has made them both famous—at least in some circles. He’s also infamous as a scientist using his work to disprove God.
Here, more than anywhere else, I ORIGINS had a choice in what direction to take, and chose wrong. I won’t rehash any more plot except to say that a call from a doctor about some tests on their new child sets Ian and Karen on a journey to discover if perhaps the idea of eyes being windows to souls has some merit. Ian starts this journey wanting to believe, for personal reasons, while at the same time keeping himself as far away from the precipice of life re-evaluation as possible. Until, at one point, he is pushed (metaphorically speaking) over the edge.
The second half of the film is more interesting, with varied locations and storylines. This, from the introduction of some strong (and potentially strong) new characters. Especially Archie Panjabi’s (THE GOOD WIFE TV Series and BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM, 2002) Priya Varma, whom Ian encounters in India while trying to locate someone with a specific eye pattern. (I did mention I’ve stopped rehashing the plot, so just work with me here). Panjabi is always a strong presence in whatever she does. Here is no exception, even if she doesn’t have much to say in the way of deep dialogue.
On a lesser scale, Steven Yeun (Glenn from the TV series THE WALKING DEAD) has a minor role in the first half of the movie as Ian’s oft-drunk roommate, and less-efficient lab partner. I was excited to see Yeun in a role other than Glenn the zombie fighter, but his Kenny simply appears when a background character needs to be a sounding board for someone else. He doesn’t do much else.
Yeun, however, is not who I was referring to earlier when I mentioned the introduction of a “potentially strong” character.
William Mapother (the LOST TV series, as well as ANOTHER EARTH) introduces us to Darryl McKenzie late in the film, in a single scene. McKenzie is on business in India and staying at Ian’s hotel. He is also a preacher. This single scene brings with it such a quiet menace, I assumed Darryl would be back as a major foil to Ian’s New-Aged quest. He wasn’t. In fact, aside from standing in the distance at an elevator, forcing Ian to take the stairs in a key scene, the preacher man has no point in the film (aside from, perhaps, paying Mapother’s rent that month). This is too bad. As a character actor, William Mapother is awesome. He eats up the screen in his unique way wherever he appears, and could have injected this film with much-needed antagonism.
Herein lies the rub, if I may misquote the Bard. I’m one of those readers (and viewers) who sometimes wishes there was no bad guy, just people struggling and working through life without having to deal with an antagonist at every turn. But for a story meant to be entertaining, it needs something. The only battle Ian has throughout the film is with, well, Ian. It’s a Man versus Himself narrative struggle, but I don’t think it’s enough. This might work in a quiet, romantic film about two elderly residents struggling with a decision to sell their Brooklyn apartment, but not in a plot where a scientist is trying to discover the meaning of life.
I ORIGINS needed more story than one man’s struggle to overcome his own viewpoint and admit that the universe might be more than the randomness of genetics. Though the ending does satisfy, in that Ian comes to a decision on that metaphorical precipice, to me the story is only just beginning. Much of this film could be condensed into a few scenes, to make room for Mapother’s preacher—was he there to kill Ian, or spy on him in order to preserve his own stubborn faith? When Ian leaves his hotel room just before the credits roll, what will his life be like? In the early moments of the film, Ian finds his lover Sofi initially through a series of coincidences and intuition, all centering around the number 11. Why 11, and what was causing this?
There was an extra scene after the credits rolled, which only exacerbates my problem with this movie—without giving things away, it opens up a whole new potential story, highlighting what could have been done before the credits.
Maybe I ORIGINS was intended as an introduction to a larger film series. Obviously there are budget and time restrictions, but if there is no forthcoming series of films, so many “what ifs” will never be answered. Of course, if a series does show itself, it runs the risk that the individual parts (films) of the whole are too thin.
As much as I hoped for more based on my enjoyment of his previous film, Cahill’s I ORIGINS stabbed me with only 2 knives. Even so, I’ll definitely check out his next. Who knows, maybe someday a director’s cut will be released with more Mapother and Yeun.
© 2016 by Daniel G. Keohane