‘I Origins’ Review
When Mike Cahill took the stage after the world premiere of 'I Origins' at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival he spoke excitedly about how special speakers were installed in the theater to take advantage of the film's rich sound mix. Did they movie have a good sound mix? Yeah, I suppose it did. But, did it do anything to make up for the half-assed storytelling and dull performances in this desultory and frustrating film? Uh, no.
Much like his previous movie 'Another Earth,' there is a real spectacular science fiction premise in 'I Origins,' but it is weighed down by drab scene work and inelegant storytelling.
After a framing device we meet Dr. Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) a research scientist studying the origin of eyes. (Yeah, the title of this movie is a pun, not just Apple branding.) In addition to having an artistic interest (he photographs close-ups of eyes, which breaks the ice at parties) he hopes to solve some of the basic questions about ocular functions and evolutionary development. He is driven by a desire to debunk believers of Intelligent Design, who claim the eye's "irreducible complexity" is proof against Godless Darwinism.
The research he and his lab assistant (Brit Marling) do leads to a eureka moment involving creating mutant worms, but not before a whole lot of gobbledygook with his pixie new girlfriend (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) who is gorgeous and has a great accent and believes in spirits and can make the number 11 appear all over the place.
After some annoyingly far-fetched turn of events (one of which may make you think that the first hour of 'I Origins' was actually a big build-up to a superhero movie) we move forward in time to the birth of Pitt's son and we get to the meat of the movie. It feels like a spoiler to say it, but it's what the movie is actually about, even if it's almost over before it is discussed, so I guess I have to.
Basically, Pitt and Marling uncover the key to reincarnation. (It has to do with eyeballs, so there's a lot of closeups of eyeballs.) What's annoying, though, is that nothing from the previous parts of the movie actually has anything to do with this discovery. For as much as the film feels rooted in genuine science, the actual "aha" hook is just dumb luck. What follows is a battle between reason and faith that you've seen portrayed better in films like 'Contact.'
The last act of the film is a slow march to confirm what we already know. The music swells and the actors make awed faces, and, yeah, if this was real it would mean something. But, this is fiction - you can say anything you want in fiction, so the shocking revelations don't mean squat if the movie is silly and you don't connect to the characters. I can write a movie and make a talking giraffe president of General Motors. That would, in real life, be shocking, and would make people reassess the very foundation of human nature, but it's something I just pulled out of my ass and that's what Mike Cahill did with this film.
[Also, there's a Marvel-esque mid-credits stinger in 'I Origins' that takes the would-be serious, emotion-rich tone of this movie and turns it into a Jason Bourne film. So if I sound harsh to this movie in print you should have heard me shouting at the screen.]
'I, Origins' premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. It was acquired by Fox Searchlight for $3 million.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.