For once in a film, it would be nice if the cynical pragmatist turned out to be correct. But a facsimile of real life does not fantastical escapism make, so the resolution of Mike Cahill’s I Origins is about as close as we’re going to get. Cahill is the director of Another Earth, one of 2011’s best films, and his mission to be “stricter” with himself leads to a film that satisfies three conditions for a spiritual sequel: another collaboration with writer/actress Brit Marling, another film with huge ideas about science and spirituality, and another story that is more about honestly exploring the self than finding answers that make everyone happy.
Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) is a frumpy grad student researching the evolution of the human eye. His surface goal is to discredit creationists who believe that the eye is so complex that it must have been intelligently designed, but his obsession goes much deeper than that (plus the creationists’ argument is not really an argument – it’s conjecture based upon personal limitation, which makes it a bit sad that Gray takes it so seriously). Part of his fascination with the eye involves photographing the irises of strangers, which no one seems to have a problem with, least of all Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), a mystery woman he meets at a Halloween party. She’s dressed in a black mask that makes her unrecognizable, but there’s an unmistakable connection between her and Gray, who spends some time tracking her down, which involves breaking his cardinal rule of not believing in “signs.” The number eleven keeps popping up after he buys a lottery ticket (the New York Lotto slogan, “Hey, you never know,” is deliberately framed center-screen as Gray ponders the coincidence), and his trail ends at a billboard hawking cosmetics. This wouldn’t be a big deal if not for the fact that the eye-model on the billboard is Sofi, gazing out over the city like TJ Eckleburg.
The film is split into two very distinct halves with a seven-year gap. The first half involves Gray’s blooming romance with Sofi, whom he finally encounters again on a bus, and despite her better judgement, begins a relationship with him. On the other hand, Gray is forced to “babysit” a first-year student named Karen (Brit Marling), who immediately combats Gray’s unfounded passive-aggression by showcasing her scientific prowess: the key to what Gray is looking for, she says, is to find a sightless animal that has the DNA required to actually develop an eye. She narrows it down to about 400,000 animals, and goes to work with nary a qualm. Kenny (Steven Yeun), Gray’s other lab partner, is developing a database that will allow everyone to be identified by their unique iris patterns. As breakthroughs are made, Gray and Sofi prepare to marry. Here’s the problem: Gray and Sofi are fundamental opposites. Gray is a rigid scientist, and Sofi is a spiritualist who believes in miracles and keeps assorted gewgaws around her apartment. In nearly every scene, they argue. This clash of science and faith comes to a head when Karen finally discovers a species of blind worm with the DNA they’ve been looking for, and Sofi visits Gray’s lab for the first time. Sofi dismisses Gray’s research as “torturing worms” and says he’s playing god. She asserts that if blind worms go about their lives without the knowledge that sight exists, yet humans know sight is real, then it’s perfectly possible that there’s another level of existence that humans are completely unaware of (again, this is presented as a real argument, but it’s conjecture – there’s proof of one of those things, Sofi! Your argument isn’t actually based on anything!). This presents the question of why these two would continue a serious relationship. Is it the stubborn thought (on both of their parts) that one of them will eventually “win”? As Gray realizes in retrospect, this was never meant to be – y’know, not that he believes in that.
The film’s most central conflict, or leastways Gray’s most central personal crisis, grows out of something that every trailer spoils because no one knows how to market a slow-burn drama about characters: Sofi’s death, which happens about halfway through. A devastated Gray briefly loses focus, but the unfortunate truth (not spoken in the film, but sadly obvious) is that Sofi’s absence is convenient: no one to berate him for being pragmatic, no one to take up space in the lab, and most importantly, no one to get in the way of the will they/won’t they between him and Karen any longer.
But there’s a reason for how long this takes. If the film had begun with Sofi’s death, she and Gray having been in a relationship established before the narrative entry point, the rest of the story would not be as effective. Because of the pacing, Gray is sympathetic even when his decisions are rash. We liked Sofi. We want to know that this was all worth it. Seven years later, Gray and Karen are married with a toddler, Gray has published a controversial book on his research, and Sofi exists only in the digital folders of his laptop. Kenny’s iris database has become a universally accepted system. But when the couple visits Dr. Jane Simmons (Cara Seymour), who wants to test the baby for autism, they quickly realize that this test is for something else. Come to find out, the iris database read their son’s irises as matching those of a recently deceased man, which should be statistically impossible, considering that every person is supposed to have unique iris patterns. Finally, an even more profound discovery is made: a young girl at an orphanage in Delhi, born shortly after Sofi’s death, has Sofi’s eyes. Karen, ever the calm and sensible one, encourages Gray to go to India and figure this out, as it could be important to the scientific community, along with helping Gray move on. With the help of Priya Varma (Archie Panjabi) and a very expensive billboard, he finds the little girl, Salomina (Kashish, a real-life Delhi orphan and the most wonderfully natural child actress I’ve seen in years) gazing up at Sofi’s eyes, her own eyes, just as Gray did at the beginning of all this.
I Origins could have gone on for another hour, considering its scope and its natural pacing. But it’s a story about a character, about discovery, and about abandoning rigidity in favor of open-mindedness (as Gray puts it, science is always evolving, while religious beliefs are unbending, and we get the feeling that Gray forgets this before his trip to India). Criticism will come from the fact that the film doesn’t present a “correct” or definitive answer as to the nature of the duplicate eyes, but let’s not forget that the film never promises to, nor is it about that (just as Another Earth was not about where Earth 2 came from or what would eventually be found there). The protagonist’s name, for crying out loud, says it all: Gray area. Nothing absolute. Species evolve. Theories change. People and ideas can grow. The door Gray walks through in Cahill’s masterful-as-usual final shot, while reflecting Sofi’s earlier allegory about not being afraid to enter the “other side,” does not mean he’s accepted anything spiritual, nor does it constitute proof of intelligent design – it illustrates the change that Gray himself has always argued for. Something in the natural world has changed, or is preparing to.
The film isn’t without its characterization flaws. Gray sometimes speaks the movie’s themes, which we can chalk up to the fact that he’s mostly drunk or worked up when he does, but it still stands out and serves a deliberate purpose. Sofi’s death – she is implicitly disemboweled by an unseen sharp object when Gray attempts to pull her out of a teetering elevator – is bizarre, unscientific, and awkwardly shot. If Cahill needed her to die instantly in an elevator accident, the threating-to-fall elevator could have just fallen, couldn’t it?
The two main women in the film, Karen and Sofi, are such polar opposites (Karen = science, pragmatism, practicality, all the way down to the way she dresses; Sofi = leather jackets, whimsicality, Manic-Pixie-ism) that they almost feel ripped from a Christopher Nolan film, and instead of allowing them to be real people on their own merits, their personalities function to “teach” the male protagonist things that will help him in the story. It’s a real issue in media, defining women by men, and perhaps Cahill’s somewhat ironic claim that he wanted to be more rigid in making this film resulted in the adoption of such conventions. On top of that, Karen, the smartest and most driven character in the piece, is relegated to stay-at-home-mom status even after Gray publishes a book and appears on TV talking about ideas that were mostly rooted in Karen’s research. Given her character, it’s almost insulting that Karen does not call attention to any of this, but maybe it’s Brit Marling’s performance that makes a character seem like she has more layers than are really written beneath (a big problem when a film wants to have powerful women in supporting roles, yet the plot relies on what the man does – not impossible to reconcile in the hands of a competent writer).
At one point, Gray runs into a traveling preacher (William Mapother in a cameo), who becomes a plot device that catalyzes the ending. Gray and Karen run tests on Salomina to see if she is Sofi, but no, that would be ridiculous. Gray moves to return Salomina to Priya, who will soon pull up in a taxi, and decides to take the elevator, which he avoided earlier after seeing the obnoxious preacher waiting for it, in favor of taking the stairs. When the elevator opens, Salomina freaks out at the sight of it. The brilliant part of this revelation (whether Cahill himself or commentators realize it) is that this goes two ways: our instinct is to believe that Sofi would be afraid of elevators were she reincarnated. But a young, homeless orphan like Salomina has probably never seen an elevator, and it’s perfectly understandable that she’d be afraid of such a machine. The idea, most likely, is that eyes are connected to neural receptors, which means that if you have someone’s eyes, you have some of their personality as well. In the world of I Origins, whether this is an amazing scientific discovery or Sofi’s version of the spiritual “other side” may be something you’ll have to let your own biases decide. One important bit to consider, however: when Gray is looking into Salomina’s face at the end, does he remember that conversation seven years earlier, wherein Sofi made clear that she never wants to be reincarnated?
Regardless, nothing excuses making a film with the intention of “sparking a conversation” if the filmmaker doesn’t know exactly what that conversation is. And your crazy neighbor who thinks her deceased husband was reincarnated as her cat still isn’t on to something.
I Origins (2014); written and directed by Mike Cahill; starring Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, and Archie Panjabi.