[This is a re-post of my I Origins review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. The film opens in limited release this weekend.]
The debate between science and religion has been going on for centuries. It’s a struggle that not only manifests itself in the physical form of heated discussions and protests, but it also takes place within ourselves. Writer/director Mike Cahill explores this issue on an intimate scale in his new dramatic sci-fi film I Origins, which delves into themes of love, relationships, science, and the afterlife to hauntingly beautiful results. It’s a highly emotional film that connects on many levels, and while Cahill comes very close to packing too much into the story, it crescendos with an emotionally powerful conclusion that resonates deeply. Read my full review after the jump.
I Origins opens, appropriately enough, with a close-up of the human eye. We’re introduced to Ian Gray (Michael Pitt), a PhD student studying molecular biology with a particular emphasis on the eye. Since the age of Darwin, the human eye has been used as evidence of intelligent design, as the argument goes that science cannot explain how something as technically complex as the human eye came to be. Ian has been working to prove that you can scientifically explain the eye, and his research focuses on tracking the evolution of the eyeball through different species.
While attending a Halloween party, Ian meets a masked woman, Sofi (Astrid Bergès–Frisbey) with gorgeously unique eyes. After a brief sexual encounter, Ian can’t stop thinking about her and decides to track her down. He eventually finds and falls in love with this reserved free spirit whose openness to the possibility of past lives and the existence of the afterlife runs up against Ian’s pragmatic approach to our place in the universe. Though the two come from opposite philosophical viewpoints, they’re so wildly, madly in love that it doesn’t seem to matter much in the beginning. While their relationship is burgeoning, Ian’s sharp new lab partner (Brit Marling) continues to work on their research into the eye and, after some time, comes to a shocking breakthrough that has a serious impact on the world as we know it.
To say much more would be to spoil the film’s many surprises, suffice it to say that what ensues is an emotional roller coaster fraught with new discoveries and poignant character developments. In a commanding lead performance, Pitt brings a confidence to the role of Ian Gray that starts to soften once he crosses paths with Sofi, who is played with a stunning sweetness and vulnerability by Bergès-Frisbey in a truly breakout role. The chemistry between Pitt and Bergès-Frisbey is magnificent, and their characters’ relationship onscreen is all-consuming. We believe in the love between Ian and Sofi, and we’re wholly invested in their relationship. The push and pull between the two raises many large questions about our place in this world, and Cahill approaches it with an objectivity that lets their relationship progress organically. They’re not the only characters in the movie, though, as Marling does fine work as the more scientifically-minded Karen, and Steven Yeun brings some incredibly solid comedic relief as Ian’s colleague Kenny.
Cahill directs I Origins with an emphasis on intimacy, but the gripping score and tight editing add a layer of intensity that is incredibly effective and wholly compelling. The pic almost delves into thriller territory at times, but always with an emphasis on character. Cahill has a sharp eye for visuals as well, and the cinematography by Markus Förderer is simply stunning.
The picture oddly has not one but two post-credits sequences that, while interesting, run right against the line of taking away some of the emotional impact of the film’s brilliant conclusion. That being said, Cahill nails the (first) ending so well that you’ll probably be too busy wiping the tears off your face to be completely taken out of it.
It’s natural for us to question the purpose of our existence, and in I Origins, Cahill explores what it means to be alive and, ultimately, what the proof or disproof of an afterlife would mean for our species as a whole. All of this is told through the captivating relationship between Ian and Sofi with a fantastic balance between intimacy and intensity, and Cahill pushes the story to unexpected avenues that only serve to enrich its themes and characters. A haunting, moving piece of work, I Origins is an excellent entry into the sci-fi genre that delivers thought-provoking themes with an emotional gut-punch.