Mike Cahill is an undeniably interesting filmmaker. Another Earth, while not to everyone’s taste, was a thematically and conceptually original piece of sci-fi cinema that also introduced the world at large to the promising talent of Brit Marling. The young actress also features alongside Michael Pitt in Cahill’s latest film, I Origins, a semi-bizarre mix of sci-fi, parable and romantic drama that, while frequently engaging, never really holds together.
Pitt plays Ian, a PhD student particularly fascinated by the human eye. He has spent much of his life photographing them and is now dedicating his thesis to their study, his primary goal being the discovery of the eye’s most basic form, thus disproving the argument for creative design proffered by many religious leaders. Into this steps Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), a quirky spiritualist to whom Ian is inexorably drawn, and that’s just the first half hour.
There are far too many ideas and plot points in I Origins for its narrative to be anywhere near coherent. Whilst the plot progresses in something akin to a linear fashion, its tone shifts so often – sci-fi, to romance, back to sci-fi, back to romance, then to a conspiracy thriller and so on – that it ends up feeling like a mishmash of short films that happened to be thrown together. Were these shifts pulled off with a bit more subtlety it could have worked, but as it is I Origins clunks between genres without any of the discipline that such innumerable turns would demand.
Unfortunately, this leaves the whole film feeling a little distracted. There is no precision to I Origins, it feels like walking through a cloud of ideas and concepts that never really get close to creating a cohesive whole. While there’s certainly no shortage of creativity on show, and the numerous leaps and twists of the plot, if nothing else, leave you guessing, this was never a film that I could properly settle into.
Meanwhile, on a conceptual level, the film makes promises that it can’t keep. For instance, it is at more than one point suggested that the Creative Design argument is the single and only legitimate argument for a higher power, and that once it’s disproved there will be no remaining justification for a God. The Ontological and Domino theories would no doubt beg to differ, as would many others. It’s broad brush-strokes like these that leaves I Origins feeling like a shallow echo of the film it initially promises.
Many of the characters are similarly impenetrable, with Bergès-Frisbey lumbered with the particularly thankless task of taking on the incredibly irritating Sofi while Marling struggles to bring life to Ian’s blandly written lab assistant. It’s fortunate then that Pitt is the dramatic highlight. Blessed with a character filled with humour and plagued by regrets, he puts in an impressive shift packed with plenty of charisma. He essentially proves to be the film’s saving grace, remaining the only consistent and significant presence in a movie that seems to spend most of its time elaborately mixing things up.
That said, there are moments of visual and stylistic beauty in I Origins. The contrast of the miller-time glow of Cahill’s New York and the clinical whites of the labs which take up much of the film’s middle third are genuinely striking, while the ending feels like a strange combination of cop out and inspiration. It’s certainly a film that works by its own logic and arguments, attempting to bend the fantastical into a shape akin to scientific fact in a way that many will find patronising. But at the same time, the mishmash of ideas and characters and teleological back-and-forths makes for a strangely unique viewing experience. The film’s scope may be cripplingly massive, but I’d much rather watch a flawed epic than an unambitious bottle piece any day.
If nothing else, I was never bored in I Origins. Often frustrated and irritated, yes, but never remotely bored. It’s an incredibly flawed movie, with a borderline insane number of ideas packed into its two hour runtime that eventually sees the need for two separate post-credit sequences in the hope of rounding off the plot. An ambitious failure it may be, but ambition is always preferable to the alternative.