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Review: Mike Cahill’s I Origins Is Subtle Sci-Fi That Doesn’t Play Out How You Would Expect

You will start noticing people's eyes more after this movie.

I Origins Billboard

Writer/Director Mike Cahill’s second narrative feature, I Origins, is out in theaters today. It’s an unconventional sci-fi film that focuses on the line between science and faith. It deals with very big ideas in a very small way, and almost pushes the larger story aside to focus entirely on the characters. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

First, if you’re the kind of person who likes going into a movie knowing nothing about it, stop reading. There’s a plot point I have to address if we’re going to talk about this film. It’s in the trailer, so I don’t really consider it a true spoiler, but it’s important to both the story and how I’ll be talking about it. I won’t, however, give away anything not in this trailer:

I Origins centers around Dr. Ian Gray, a Richard Dawkins-based scientist who bases his beliefs solely on evidence. He studies the human eye to prove it evolved and disprove creationists. That’s what drew me into the movie in the first place, and it’s a recurring theme throughout.

When Gray meets Sofi, a mysterious and spiritual woman with beautiful eyes, they start an unlikely but intense romance that ends tragically when she dies. (That’s the plot point I mentioned above.) Ten years later Gray learns that a child in India has Sofi’s exact iris pattern, something he believes to be impossible, so he flies to India to investigate, and what he finds challenges his beliefs.

I realize that the summary doesn’t sound like a science fiction movie at all, and that’s because I Origins is not your typical sci-fi fair. It has more in common with small independent dramas than big budget sci-fi, but the film is centered around a scientific premise that I think in any other movie would have been the central focus.

Everyone on Earth has a unique pair of eyes. Iris patterns are like fingerprints, some would say they’re even more unique. It’s why iris scanning is becoming an increasingly common form of biometric identification. I Origins works on the premise that eyes are not truly unique. Everyone living has a unique iris pattern, sure, but maybe an iris pattern can repeat after someone dies. Whether or not that’s true, and exactly what it would mean is the background setting for a much more personal story about Gray’s beliefs and his relationships.

If a different director was telling the same story–let’s use Michael Bay as an example because I can’t think of anyone more different than Cahill–if Michael Bay was telling the same story the focus would be on the potential global impact of iris patterns–and arguably souls–reincarnating. There would also be explosions and Sofi would have been played by Megan Fox and Gray would travel exclusively by motorcycle or something.

I Origins focuses on Gray, but there’s another team of scientists we barely see that are also looking into the same phenomena. That’s the team I think any other filmmaker would have chosen to focus the story on. Gray may have been a character, but a minor one. He’d be a plot device. After all, it’s Gray’s obsession with eyes and his kind-of-too-on-the-nose habit of photographing the eyes of everyone he meets that leads him to finding out a child in India has Sofi’s eyes.

Cahill’s approach to the story is unique, interesting, but also a little problematic. The result is a film that feels oddly structured. There are two distinct stories that are out of sync. We spend a lot of time at the beginning of the film getting to know Gray, Sofi, and the other characters. Then we jump ahead almost ten years and that’s when the story of the iris patterns starts picking up. I Origins ends as Gray’s story concludes–perhaps even a little bit sooner if you’re not the type of person willing to draw their own conclusions at the end of a movie–but that’s also right when the story in the background is picking up steam.

It’s like if Star Wars focused entirely on Luke Skywalker’s life as a moisture farmer trying to get off Tatooine, and then ends when he flies away with Han Solo. I want to see where this story goes. I had the chance to interview Cahill and the cast of the film, and they all made jokes about a sequel. Please. Make one. There is an after-credits scene that further addresses the other scientists, but it’s not a resolution. If anything it just makes me want to see that story even more.

Structure aside, the story Cahill tells in I Origins is a fascinating one. Gray is an interesting character played wonderfully by Michael Pitt (Boardwalk Empire, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The Dreamers). Pitt is joined by an excellent supporting cast. Sofi is played by Astrid Bergès-Frisbey who brings a real counterweight to the scientific themes in the film. Brit Marling, who worked with Cahill on Another Earth, plays Karen. We’re introduced to her as a first-year lab assistant to Gray that he’s immediately dismissive of, but Karen quickly shows herself to be an apt scientist. She goes from lab assistant to intellectual equal over the course of one scene, and it’s great. Karen sparks something Gray that hugely impacts his research. Marling plays Karen as a strong scientist first, whereas other actresses may have had her doting on Gray. Their relationship evolves over the course of the film, but it’s always as partners. She’s not his sidekick.

The only other real main character is Kenny, played by The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun. He’s Gray’s friend and lab partner. Yeun and Pitt are instantly believable as scientists and friends, and I wish the film had more interaction between the two. Yeun really steals the scenes he’s in. His character chooses to go into the business side of science, and there’s a great scene between Kenny, Gray, and Karen after the first big time jump in the film that really feels like three old friends catching up. The acting in the movie is all-around perfect.

Science-minded viewers will appreciate the effort that was put into making that aspect of the film believable. Cahill has two brothers who are scientists, so it helped inform those scenes. The actors visited a real working lab and learned how to use the equipment. It’s a small thing, but it’s a nice change from the “science” we see in a lot of movies where set designers just throw random equipment around wherever it looks cool.

That said, there is one incredibly small flaw that would probably have gone completely unnoticed if Neil deGrasse Tyson hadn’t gotten in the habit of calling these kinds of things out on Twitter. In the scene where Gray meets Astrid at the Halloween party at one point he looks up at a big, bright, Full Moon. In the timeline of the movie that happened on Halloween 2006. I made a note during the screening and when I got back to the office I checked, and on Halloween 2006 the Moon was only half full. Again, really small thing.

I Origins is an unconventional film that doesn’t play out like a typical sci-fi movie, but the story it does tell is an interesting one that’s well told and beautifully acted. It raises a lot of interesting questions about the nature of science and faith, and doesn’t come across as preachy or demeaning to either side. I’d still like to see what happens with those other scientists though.

(via Fox Searchlight)

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Glen is a comedian, writer, husband, and father. He won his third-grade science fair and is a former preschool science teacher, which is a real job.