By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

Sundance 2014 Review: I Origins

000038.2766.IOrigins_still1_MichaelPitt_AstridBergsFrisbey__byJelenaVukotic_2013-11-27_05-27-51PMTeaming again with Brit Marling as a follow-up to 2011’s prize-winning Another Earth, director Mike Cahill returns to Sundance with I Origins—a mature and sensitive science fiction drama that aims high but falls short of its potential. Though brimming with promise and vivid cinematography, the overlong sentimentality and frustrating pace of the film act as a cataract, blunting the impact of some key metaphysical elements.

Michael Pitt (“Boardwalk Empire”) plays Dr. Ian Gray, a molecular biologist specializing in ocular evolution. At his side is lab partner Karen (Marling), an ambitious first-year who is far smarter than most. With Karen’s help, Gray is convinced he can put to rest the notion that eyes are irreducibly complex, silencing those pesky intelligent design proponents for good. “Why do you want to disprove God?” Sofi, Ian’s girlfriend (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) asks him. “When was he proven in the first place?” Ian responds. And so it is that the precarious balance between science and spirituality becomes the film’s main interest, a theme that is initially explored and later overplayed.

The acting, while fine, never really rises beyond a monotony that serves the rational eggheads that Pitt and Marling play. There’s some eye-popping photography, though, both in the cornucopia of iris close-ups and some on-location images as the film travels to rural India. Striking shots of eyes abound here, and they’re smartly compared to galaxies to fly through. To be sure, it’s in the slick and well-planned production design of I Origins that makes it an agreeable sit, and there’s enough to chew on for some stimulating contemplation.

Unfortunately, the science fiction is told around a lagging and clouded drama. To start, Ian’s relationship with Sofi is an unbelievable match between two people that seem to have very little in common; their romance is also bookended by events that are equally implausible. We’re subjected to a certain cosmic flukiness about this passionate love interest that feels less mystical and more forced, and certainly the idea that life works in mysterious ways is touched upon by these unlikely catalysts. It’s just that they come across as half-baked, and frankly a little goofy.

Somewhere through I Origins, though, and the various breadcrumbs fall into place: Cahill’s fully-realized premise comes into view as Ian and Karen discover something astonishing about the nature of the human iris. There are some really interesting grand narrative implications here, suggesting a life of rigorous science is blind to some of the more arcane secrets of the universe. Of course, their discovery arrives after an hour or so of Gray’s dull and overlong interactions with Sofi, which retroactively become an extended foreshadowing device.

To be fair, when the film’s megaton secret finally drops, there’s a brief, fleeting sense of aha. What Cahill is hinting at here is a unique and creative look at hard science fiction, and there’s an exciting sense of possibility. This is a big, ambitious film, and the clichéd first half of I Origins becomes worth the slog. The pace quickens and we can’t look away.

But then it happens again: Cahill takes his eyes off the prize. His protagonists, while brilliant scientists, take far too long to piece together the clues that are gifted to them through further contrivances and other lucky accidents. It gets to the point where the film’s conclusion is espied and telegraphed far before it hits, spoon-feeding every audience member in the process. It’s here that Cahill’s on-the-nose (poke-you-in-the-eye?) approach to exposition is disappointing, especially given how clever the overarching idea is. A puzzle film this is not, despite some genius flashes that seem akin to Shane Carruth, Cahill’s Sundance sci-fi contemporary. Finally, the theme of science versus spirituality is driven home repeatedly; executed without that same spark and imagination that sets up the plot. The connections or links between the two rarely go beyond the obvious, including an ending stinger that feels out-of-place and again, kind of goofy.

 

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“To be a critic is to be a workaholic. Workaholism is socially conditioned: viewed favourably by exploiters, it’s generally ruinous to a worker’s mental health. When T.S. Eliot said criticism was as inevitable as breathing, he failed to mention that, respiratory problems notwithstanding, breathing is easy. Criticism is reflexive before reflective: to formalise/industrialise an involuntary instinct requires time, effort and discipline. The reason we seek remuneration, as opposed to the self-hatred of being a scab, is because all labour should be waged…

“Criticism, so the cliché by now goes, is dying. None of the panel discussions on its death agony, however—including those in which I’ve formally participated—come at it from the wider perspective that the problem surely needs. They defend the ways in which criticism functions in relation to the industry and to the public, but they fail to contextualise these relationships as defined by ultimately rotten and self-harming imperatives.

“Criticism was a noble profession so long as only a few could practice it for money; when the field expands, as it has with a so-called ‘democratisation’ of our practice, those few lose their political power. Competition grows and markets are undercut: publications are naturally going to start paying less. Precarity is both cause and effect of a surplus workforce: the reason you’re only as good as your last article is because there are plenty of other folks who can write the next one in your place. The daily grind is: pitch, or perish.

B”ut criticism, so a counter-cliché goes, is not dying. An irony: this is an elite sport that is no longer elite in terms of who is able to practice it, but in economic terms it’s clutching to a perverse and outmoded hierarchical structure. It’s more meritocratic than ever, now: which is to say it isn’t meritocratic at all. That’s a paradox in bad need of a resolution…”

~ Michael Pattison Manifestoes Film Criticism

“It’s easy to forget when you’re reading a critic every single week or multiple times a week, that most of us who do this job, and have been doing it for a long time, understand that this is basically a parasitic profession. I don’t mean in the sense that we’re evil bloodsucking creatures, but we couldn’t exist if we didn’t have something to analyze. And I’m always conscious of that. So whether I like or don’t like a particular thing you do, my point of view is always that of an appreciator. I just like to be in the world that you create.”
~ Matt Zoller Seitz To Sam Esmail

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