There’s a somewhat interesting story behind I Origins – the movie itself, not necessarily the movie’s story. Mike Cahill, writer and director, unable to resolve story issues during development phase of his follow up movie to Another Earth, essentially scrapped the draft and turned to writing, instead, an origin story for his original concept. Hoping it would allow him to address the story issues of the first draft, I Origins was produced as a prequel to the main concept, which was set up at Fox Searchlight sometime in late 2015.
The resulting movie, released in 2014, won Cahill the Best feature Length Film at the Festival Internacional de Cinema de Catalunya – recent winners include the original Oldboy, Moon, and The Invitation, and actors Robert Downey Jr, Christian Bale, and Vincent D’Onfrio. The competition rewards movies in the fantasy and horror genre, but it seems to have elastic definitions, using I Origins as an example.
Here, Michael Pitt stars as Ian, a graduate student involved in researching the evolution of the human eye, one of the cornerstones of the Creationism movement’s assertion that the theory of evolution is wrong. As secular as any great scientist should be, Ian hopes to provide indisputable proof by tracing the main evolutionary steps from simple eyeless lifeforms to our own peepers. A brief aside here, regarding the eye’s importance to Creationism: about 20 years ago, I worked with a born-again Christian who had been badly burned in Vietnam. This guy was as far right as you could get, and even though we shared radically different views (I’m agnostic) we had some terrific conversations on life, the universe, and we who populate it. We had very little common ground, but I find life to be a richer experience when you’re willing to listen to other views without immediately closing yourself down. One of his reasons for being against evolution was the human eye. Like most of his pro-Christian opinions, the eye disproved evolution because he didn’t understand how something so complex could just appear out of thin air (though he didn’t voice the same concerns with the human brain, oddly enough). It’s a clear misunderstanding about how the massive timespans involved with evolution, coupled with the layman’s “survival of the fittest” reduction, can lead to biological complexity. Okay, school is out, back to the review.
My initial interest in I Origins was that Michael Pitt was the star. I enjoy his work, but it’s so infrequent. His memorable turn as Paul in Michael Haneke’s remake of his own movie Funny Games made me a fan, and I try to see his work at some point. I feel there’s one great part that he still has to play that could put him up there with the likes of Ryan Gosling (his costar in Murder By Numbers), in terms of the more edgy type of actor. In I Origins he brings a quietly anxious tension to the role of Ian, which felt like an added layer of depth not in the script, but what’s missing on the writing side is the passion to disprove Creationism. The character mentions a couple of times throughout the movie of his opposition to religion, but I didn’t get a sense of the drive he had to focus so singularly on this one thesis. But this isn’t the focus of the movie, really.
Early in Act 1 he meets the love of his life, a masked woman, Sofi, sitting on the rooftop of a building where she and Ian are both attending a party, separately. Ian’s hobby is to take photographs of people’s eyes – something that has grown out of his thesis work. After a brief sexual encounter in a downstairs bathroom, she splits, and he thinks he’ll never see her again, only for an odd succession of events that lead him back to her late in the first act. I’ll stop for a moment to mention that these events all take place within a few minutes of screentime and then nothing like them ever happens again. I guess it’s meant to be quasi-metaphysical, but to me it comes off as more than a little contrived. Anyway, during all of this, Karen, his plain-Jane lab assistant – a brilliant mind in her own right – is secretly crushing on him, but doesn’t speak up about it. In Act 2, Sofi dies in a terrible accident, and in his grief, Ian turns to Karen. Seven years later, they’re married and expecting their first child. It’s here that the movie delivers the entire point of the story, which I won’t go into. What I will say is that I found some deep problems with the story here. It’s a beautifully made movie, well acted, with interesting characters, but my opinion is that in writing I Origins as the prelude to the movie he initially wanted to write, Cahill’s script feels too much like a long-winded set up. It’s like the person you know who can’t tell you a story without feeling the need to give all of the contextual data leading up to the actual story. The resulting movie just feels ponderously slow, and the reveal isn’t treated like a reveal, but given its nature, and the secularity of both Ian and Karen, it should have been. It should have felt like this one revelation rocked their own belief structure to the core. Instead, they just kind of accept it immediately. For two scientists set up as being diligent and dedicated to The Scientific Method, it’s just bad writing for them to get from point A to point B by taking a light jaunt across the street, when it should have been miles away in a different town. Another example of writing convenient plot points to bridge gaps in the narrative. As someone who doesn’t believe in anything of a supernatural/spiritual/metaphysical nature, I’m annoyed when movies feature the kind of rapid fire acceptance of these things by otherwise logical, critical thinking characters. You rarely ever see the opposite occurring in movies.
I Origins isn’t a bad movie at all, but it suffers from the same critical elements as the superhero movies we’re all familiar with, where the origin story has to be there to set everything up, but in doing so leaves little room for an actual story to develop. In writing this movie to be the set up for something else, Cahill short changes this one to the point where you wonder if the main event is going to be something worth watching.