by George Sax
In Mike Cahill’s I Origins the eyes have it, hands down—the mixed metaphor notwithstanding. Cahill takes the New Testament poetic adage about the eyes being windows to the soul and spins it out into a dreamy fable of the often adversarial relationship of science and faith. The movie asks, what’s knowable via the scientific method, and what claims can other, older modes of knowing make on our beliefs?
Don’t write Cahill’s movie off as a dreary, off-puttingly highbrow discussion. It’s far more audience friendly than that and you scarcely need to have majored in metaphysics or theology to get involved in it. In fact, it may be helpful if you haven’t, since I Origins (a dorky title) eventually settles for rather vaporous simplicities in response to the questions it raises.
Before that begins to be clear, it’s pleasantly propelled by the developing romance of two very attractive young people, each of whom more or less represents very different ways of understanding our world. They even meet cute, if hit-and-run fellatio in a lower Manhattan dance club restroom counts as cute. The abandoned but smitten party, Ian (Michael Pitt who’s also an executive producer) searches for his downtown Cinderella using his scientific smarts and a photo of her eyes he managed to take, and matches her irises with a billboard image (she’s a model).
Ian’s something of an expert on irises, a molecular biologist and geneticist who, with his lab assistant Karen (Brit Marling), has been trying to create sighted worms in a species that’s naturally blind, manipulating a genetic anomaly. All he wants is “clean, clear data” and irrefutable proof of evolution.
Sofi, his newfound beloved (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), isn’t so sure about this: “You leave me every day to torture worms?” She advises him that it’s dangerous to play God. Despite their differences, they’re really into each other, and a strikingly handsome couple. Their improbable romance is persuasive, certainly more so than the direction in which Cahill takes things. Rather unlikely personal disaster is followed by an ambitious but largely vacuous narrative excursion into conceptual borrowing from Eastern religions involving the transmigration of souls. Cahill may have been trying to qualify science’s claims to truth, but the effort comes off as rather naïve and mechanistic.
Which isn’t to say that the movie isn’t without its enjoyable elements. Cahill—who also wrote and edited—is a fluent director and I Origins is aesthetically accomplished. Pitt, who shoulders much of the movie’s acting burden, is unemphatically convincing in spite of the role’s difficulties.
But Cahill lets his audience down eventually. His mystique-laden payoff doesn’t amount to much.
Watch the trailer for I Origins
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