Mike Cahill likes to make films that are decidedly different to the usual multiplex fare. For instance, the only other film of recent I can recall that was set around the scientific process – at least in a credible way rather than a few wave of the hand visits to a laboratory – was Errors of the Human Body (2012) and then it would be all the way back to The Andromeda Strain (1971). For that matter, I challenge you to name any other film that is based around characters obsessed with the patterns of the human iris. Here unusually the scientific process is wound in and acts as an integral part of the film’s plot.
This does lead one to the essential problems with Mike Cahill’s films – he appropriates science and science-fictional ideas but the film are actually more relationship dramas. Another Earth took a science-fictional idea – a Counter Earth filled with doppelgangers – that collapsed into the scientifically absurd where clearly nobody had though to consult an astronomer, while you could have taken the central story about redemption out and made another film altogether for all the impact it had on the science-fiction element.
Similar things happen with I Origins. There is a science-fictional idea, yet much of the film is also a relationship drama. Certainly, you have to give Mike Cahill credit in that he gives the impression that he has gone and spent some time in a lab and done a good deal of research on the topics that he chooses as his subject matter. Much of this is essentially set up so that the film can work (at least during its earlier relationship scenes between Michael Pitt and Astrid Berges-Frisbey) as a standard scientific reductionism vs mystical, New Age outlook debate. (Although this is such that you wonder how characters with such diametrically opposed viewpoints could possibly have any common ground – at least, you have to credit Cahill in that he gives the relationship such an energy that the two actors make it work). The problem is that though the film grounds much of itself in a rationalist scientific outlook, when it comes down to it many of the deductions that Michael Pitt makes are non-sequitir, non-rational ones where vital clues are obtained by such things as numerological significance or lookalike coincidences.
Most frustratingly [PLOT SPOIILERS], the film seems to be heading towards delving into a big mystery – people with the statistically impossible coincidence of identical iris patterns and then the discovery that they appear to also have identical memories, which by the end of the film gives the impression that we are talking about some type of reincarnation. Here I Origins frustrates immensely. The script builds up to an immensely intriguing idea and then just fades out at the point that Michael Pitt would seem to have confirmed that Kashish has the same memories as Astrid Berges-Frisbey. It leaves every audience frustrated as, just as in Another Earth, Cahill abruptly ends the film with the question of what happens next left unanswered. Just what is going on with the people being born with identical eye patterns? Who or what is the organisation that appears to be backing this and, as the post-credits sequence shows, seems to be manipulating things regarding the irises of numerous famous people of the 20th Century? It is a film that feels like it is missing an entire third act.
What must be commended is that Mike Cahill makes a good relationship film out of I Origins. The initial scenes between Michael Pitt and Astrid Berges-Frisbey comes with a sparkly charm – his encounter with her masked but for her eyes as she seduces him at a party; charming images like he walking up to her on a subway and putting his headphones on her and following her carrying his player as she leaves the carriage; or she walking up the steps of city hall in slow motion with the train of a wedding dress floating behind her. These are all the little pieces of mise-en-scene from a director with a poet’s eye. Michael Pitt, who one has mostly seen playing troubled teenagers in films like Murder By Numbers (2002) and Funny Games US (2007), does a worthwhile job in a straight role. Brit Marling, who has proven a radiant joy in films like Another Earth and Sound of My Voice (2011), does her appealing thing playing nerdy and bespectacled as Pitt’s second wife.
(Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (Brit Marling) and Best Cinematography at this sites Best of 2014 Awards).