I Origins (2014) Film Review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, a movie directed by Mike Cahill, and starring Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Steven Yeun, Archie Panjabi, William Mapother, Rhonda Ayers, Ako, Venida Evans, and Cara Seymour.
On the film and the director’s past
With the 2014 Sundance Film Festival under way, I Origins has been picked up for domestic release by Fox Searchlight in a deal reportedly around $3 million. This is the second film written and directed by Mike Cahill that Fox Searchlight has acquired, the first one having been Another Earth back in 2011. Both films were recipients of the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Prize, a $20,000 reward given to filmmakers whose films “explore science and technology themes or that depict scientists, engineers and mathematicians in engaging and innovative ways.”
The audience follows Dr. Ian Gray (Michael Pitt), a molecular biologist whose stated professional goal is to prove that the human eye can be replicated, thus proving false popular theories of intelligent design while propagating theories of evolution. His protégé is Karen (Brit Marling), a first year student who has taken an equal (and perhaps greater) interest in this project. Ian is complemented by a free-spirited woman named Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), whom he met one night at a party when he asked her if he could take a picture of her eyes. She comfortably challenges his stubborn assertions that the spiritual realm is an idea for weak minds (at one point, he is incredulous that someone so close to him would use the “S” word: “soul”). When triumph and tragedy strike within mere hours of each other, Ian is launched onto an emotional journey that takes him where he swore he’d never go, with implications for the entire human population.
It’s difficult to say anything more regarding the film’s plot, which skillfully navigates the science vs. faith debate in a way that seems new and fresh. Several scenes between the secular, Richard-Dawkins-reading Ian and the spiritual, faith-promoting Sofi illustrate for the audience a framework for discussing sensitive issues without losing one’s cool. “Why do you try so hard to disprove God?” Sofi asks. “Why would I feel the need to disprove something that’s yet to be proven?” Ian shoots back. Thought-provoking without becoming preachy, ideological, or tiresome is one of the film’s strengths, and credit is due to director and screenwriter Mike Cahill for an intelligent, attention-holding script. Its revelations are welcome, even if they become somewhat more predictable as the film winds its way toward the finish line. The film’s climax is unexpectedly poetic and beautiful in the way it ties everything together. Its sucker-punch ending may even necessitate a tissue or two.
Perhaps the film’s greatest strength lies in its superior attention to detail. When Sofi presses Ian about letting go of the need for evidence and trusting in something greater than himself, the double doors behind them are illuminated by the light seeping through their cracks, a subtle Christian cross appearing on the floor. There are dozens of fun nods to the periodic table and its elements, as well, throughout the film. Make sure to stay after the credits for a peek at a sinister plot accomplished using technology elaborated on in the film.
Pitt provides some very solid work here, and Cahill’s muse Brit Marling is fantastic as always. Relative newcomer Astrid Berges-Frisbey haunts the audience with her enchanting pair of eyes and French accent. Fans of the TV show Lost and Cahill’s freshman feature Another Earth will be pleased to see William Mapother pop up in a short cameo.
Cahill’s film shines as an example of smart filmmaking, an exceedingly accessible film that ought to appeal to men and women, especially since its female characters are presented as strong, capable equals. This is more than a film; it’s an experience, and it’s not to be missed when Fox Searchlight releases it later this year.
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