Teaming 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.