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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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas