In a fresh look at a tired argument, director Mike Cahill adds his flavor to the ongoing evolution-versus-creationism battle with I Origins, and after a few bites the dish actually tastes pretty good. On the surface it appears to be a niche film directed at the “you just don’t get it” crowd, but, further in, the universal appeal surfaces in unlikely places.
Dr. Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) is a somewhat cocky but likable young molecular biologist who is fascinated with the human eye. In his free time he takes photos of people’s eyes, and his doctorate work is dedicated to finding proof of the evolution of the human eye to disprove the intelligent design theory — that is, that the eye is too perfect and beautiful to have evolved through trial and error. It’s this endeavor that leads him on a journey to bear witness to the unexplainable.
The dichotomy between science and God is played out through two intimate relationships in Gray’s life. Karen (Brit Marling, co-writer and star of Another Earth, Cahill’s 2011 Sundance Film Festival breakthrough debut) is a first-year lab assistant assigned to Gray, much to his irritation at first. However, after she makes the discovery of a sightless worm that carries within its genes the materials needed to create the simplest version of an eye, she wins him over, and a new level of energy, from excitement and discovery, permeates their relationship.
At a Halloween party, Gray has a wild encounter with a masked woman. He photographs her eyes as she grinds on top of him in a bathroom, and just like that she is gone. The encounter leaves him shaken and determined to find the owner of the eyes that he claims changed his life forever.
In a kind of unreal way involving the number 11, Gray finds the woman, Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), and the two soon fall madly in love. She is a believer in spirituality and the unexplainable, and Gray believes only in fact. Only after a tragedy do these three worlds collide in an unexpected way.
Cahill is no stranger to trying to portray what is means to be human. Another Earth deals with the idea of parallel universes and the infinite number of ways life and relationships can take form. With I Origins, he attempts to tear down the wall between science and religion, and he succeeds. The movie suggests that if you look deeply enough, you’ll find beauty in science and discover that scientific research can lead to spiritual discoveries.
A fine line separates pretentious preaching of ideals and truly thought-provoking commentary on the deeper meanings in life. Cahill explores these ideas and themes without ever getting near that line. He approaches the questions without giving any answers, instead leaving moviegoers to ponder the answers and meanings long after leaving the theater.
Cahill’s progression from Another Earth to I Origins reveals a filmmaker who isn’t afraid to take chances, weaving the eternal question of life’s meaning through everyday relationships that become grander than the sum of their parts.
Starring Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, and Astrid Bergès-Frisbey. Written and directed by Mike Cahill. Rated R.