With sophomore feature I Origins (2014), American independent director Mike Cahill once again utilises the theoretical landscape of the science fiction genre to analyse the human condition. Similar in style and tone to his high-concept, low-budget debut Another Earth (2011), this science-versus-faith puzzler looks to expand upon the established maxim that “eyes are the window to the soul”, eluding that they might in face be the conduit in which our souls traverse the limitlessness of existence. I Origins opens with a startling montage of eyes. As their pupils dilate under the camera’s unforgiving flash, we’re reminded by Dr. Ian Gray (Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Pitt) that each one is as unique as a person’s finger print.
For years, creationists have argued that the intelligent design of the eye is evidence of an omnipotent creator, something molecular biologist Ian is keen to disprove. His research aims to track the evolution of the eye to its origins, but it’s beguiling eye-model Sofi (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) that will lead him to his greatest discovery. Her faith in reincarnation and God are at odds with Ian’s Darwinian beliefs yet, through reasons never truly disclosed, their relationship blossoms. That is until a tragic accident rips the couple apart. Ian moves on with his life, completing his research and marrying his lab partner Karen (Brit Marling). However, years later, a scientific discovery again places Sofi into Ian’s life, leading him halfway across the world in search of evidence that, if proved, could discredit his life’s work and challenge his entire belief system.
For many, Another Earth was commendable for focusing on the interpersonal relationships of its characters in a genre notoriously reliant on spectacle. In I Origins, Cahill once again lets the science organically evolve in the background while he focuses on the internal struggle of his cast. However, like his last effort, dominant metaphors eclipse the narrative, nullifying his characters as they drift from scene to scene in a script that affords them little agency. Stripping away all the magic and mystery, the voyage into reincarnation becomes the catalyst for an irregular love triangle. The chances of a romantic sub-plot developing between characters whose idea of a starry-eyed pick-up line is “my atoms have always loved your atoms” is unlikely to resonate with much authenticity. As events unfurl and the pseudo-intellectualising becomes more absurd, it becomes clear that Cahill is far more enamoured with supernatural theories than he is with the mysteries of science and the complexities of human emotions.
I Origins is a handsome film, yet that same elegance is lacking from a script too reliant on the discourse of binaries. Characters are either agnostics or believers, and this unwavering delineation ultimately makes Ian’s theoretical U-turn far too difficult to accept, especially in a film where coincidences appear all too frequently. By the time we find ourselves scouring the overpopulated streets of Deli with Ian in search of a girl with the exact same iris pattern as his ex-girlfriend we merely have to accept this as natural behaviour. What’s more, it comes as little surprise that the first woman he shows a picture to recognises the eyes immediately. Commendably, when the moment arrives for Ian to confront his spiritual scepticism, it’s hard not to feel a little bit moved by this transparent yet tender moment. Perhaps there’s something poignant lurking behind I Origins’ pseudo-intellectualising, or perhaps it’s merely evidence that humanity’s faith in the supernatural is far too entrenched to ever be completely extinguished.