Sometimes the saddest thing about a film is its lost potential. I Origins (2014, dir. Mike Cahill) is a pseudo-science fiction drama film lead by Michael Pitt as Ian Gray, a grad student specialising in the field of molecular biology. Ian has an interesting fascination – ever since he was a kid, he’s loved taking high quality, up close photographs of peoples’ eyes. When he meets a beautiful young woman at a party (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) but doesn’t catch her name, he seeks her out after seeing a big photo of her eyes plastered on a billboard advertisement. Meanwhile, Ian and his student lab partner (Brit Marling) seek to uncover the mysteries of evolution by studying the structure of the eye, eventually making a discovery that could change the way we perceive the gap between science and religion.
I chose to watch I Origins kind of on a whim because I was attracted by the poster, which I find very minimalistic and beautiful. In some ways, I’m glad I chose to watch this. However, in other ways, this was one of the more frustrating films I’ve watched recently.
I’ll start with the good first. The direction by Mike Cahill is pretty much flawless and includes some gorgeous shots that set the scene for the attempt at a beautiful story. Same goes for the cinematography which is also quite stunning and is filled with some gorgeous use of light, and some picturesque locations that make me want to go back to New York immediately. The performances by Michael Pitt and Astrid Berges-Frisbey are both quite good, although Berges-Frisbey verges on the manic pixie dream girl trope occasionally. Steven Yeun (also known as Glenn from The Walking Dead) is a good sarcastic friend character who pops in occasionally. But I think my favourite performance was by Brit Marling, whose sensitive portrayal of a wife and partner who is coming to terms with her husband’s need for closure was quite moving.
Another positive of I Origins is its ambitious ideas. There are some huge ideas in this film – involving science, ethics, religion, spirituality, love, the idea of soulmates, grief, parenthood, and much more. But it’s such a shame that these ideas are just not treated with the respect and time that they deserve.
It actually makes me sad that a film with such awesome potential to be completely mindblowing devolved into such a huge pile of nothingness and schmaltz. The film starts out with the edgy idea of potentially disproving the idea that a divine creator exists, but the pacing throughout is so off that everything feels like three different films: the love story film, the science fiction film, and the tearjerker drama film (distinct from the love story film because it involves children and an overseas location). The love story seems to take up too much time for its relative significance to the rest of the film. The final tearjerker part, where the conclusion happens, is strangely rushed. I just wish I had seen more of the science fiction part as that was also quite rushed and hastily explained away. There isn’t enough consistency to really stitch the three separate mini films of I Origins together.
Furthermore, the film keeps bringing up interesting things only to leave them unexplored, which is highly frustrating. Ian’s strange coincidences with the number 11 are introduced and then forgotten. A team of scientists pretending his son has Autism in a highly unethical study happens, and then no one does anything about it even though it’s clearly dodgy and as Ian and his partner are both scientists they should know better. The big reveal regarding the crux of the storyline involving Ian’s son is explained, and then forgotten as Ian decides to chase after the mysteries of his ex-girlfriend again. Then there are the dealings with a clearly weird Catholic priest in India, where he was set up as someone super suspicious, and then nothing happened – clearly, a waste of time. It’s just weird.
And then there’s the idea set up at the very beginning – the viewer of the film being introduced to the eyes that changed this world. Maybe those eyes changed Ian’s personal life, but did those eyes really change the world of the film? Because we saw little to no evidence of that. And that is really disappointing.
All of these elements together would make for a pretty interesting film if explored or even properly addressed. But as it stands, this film is a whole bunch of setup for a vague explanation and an awkward, abrupt ending. Although, one of the final moments of the film was quite emotional and had a big significance to an earlier moment in the film, which was nice to see as it reflected some consistency, and was very well acted by a certain child actor.
Ultimately, I’m sad that this film didn’t live up to the expectations that it set up for itself. But at the same time, I’m glad I watched it. Watching a film like this is a good exercise in flexing your film criticism muscles, and to be honest, the awesome direction and cinematography are probably worth watching even when taking into account the whole kerfuffle of the story.
Watch the trailer here.
Watch this film at Amazon!