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Great films always divide viewers, and I Origins, and Mike Cahill’s superbly thought-provoking examination of skepticism, belief, science, religion, true love and the existence of the soul, will be no exception. As his second picture, following 2011’s notable Another Earth, I Origins reveals Cahill’s estimable screenwriting and directing capabilities at full flower, marking a huge leap forward in narrative reach.
In telling the story of a scientist obsessed with disproving the existence of God, the film goes to surprising places. In scene after scene, we’re never quite sure where Cahill is taking us, but along the way many mysteries are raised, including the intangible forces between lovers and potential connections between soul mates, as well as some substantial theorizing about reincarnation. Sound heady? It isn’t.
Michael Pitt, finally in a breakthrough performance, is Manhattan molecular biologist Ian Gray, a PhD student holding a lifelong fascination with the human eye, the focus of his exhaustive research. He believes that if he can find a naturally blind organism—one missing the gene for sight—and evolve that organism to be able to see, he will disprove the theory that the human eyes hold the key to intelligent design and the existence of the Creator.
For Ian, the eyes are not windows to the soul, a bogus concept as far as he’s concerned, but rather a childhood fascination, and one that comes sharply into focus at a Halloween party where he meets a mysterious, leggy figure clad in a mask that only reveals her eyes. The pair quickly grope for intimacy and then suddenly, she’s gone. She does, however, have a very unique pair of eyes, which he photographs before she disappears into the night.
A chance encounter with a billboard reveals the same set, and some sleuthing leads him to European free spirit Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey). After a lovely scene atop a train platform involving a pair of headphones, they fall instantly in love, despite their radically opposing ideologies. Ian is a hardcore atheist; Sofi believes almost exclusively in superstition and the spiritual world. Naturally, this yin and yang can’t resist each other, setting the stage for the film’s central tug of war, including some swooning romance and pungent philosophical debates.
Enter Karen (the great Brit Marling), a first-year student and lab protégé who shares Ian’s need for scientific verification and sets about aiding his research, in dogged pursuit of discovering the genetic steps to support Ian’s supposition.
To say more would be speaking out of school, but nothing is what it seems to be, and the Marling (working again with Cahill after their Another Earth collaboration) shines as Pitt’s research partner and colleague, first in the lab and then later in life. There are tragedies and surprises in store for this overly confident pair of brilliant non-believers, wholly unprepared for the bricks that fall when their son is born and some narrative surprises cause them to re-evaluate everything, which is an understatement.
Pitt, the rakish yet sensitive young actor with a resume that includes Bernardo Bertolucci’s arresting ménage romp The Dreamers, Michael Haneke’s upsetting American version of his own Funny Games, John Cameron Mitchell’s glam-pathos musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, had the looks to be a teen idol, but instead eschewed marketing logic to carve out a gritty, indie career. At thirty-three he gets his richest and best-performed role in I Origins, one that requires him to think, evaluate and convey Cahill’s dense themes while convincing as both a scientist, young man in love and skeptical human struggling toward enlightenment.
I Origins is about our human need to reconcile what we think we know and what we feel but perhaps cannot explain, and is so consistently absorbing that I didn’t move for nearly two hours and had one of those experiences so rare, where the mind and heart are equally engaged, and the imagination flies in every scene.
A movie of rare intelligence—meaning super smart characters who are always refreshingly ahead of the audience—I Origins is impossible to categorize since by turns it is a scientific thriller, love story, a coming to terms with ghosts of the past movie, and movie that makes a strong case for science and then completely upends its entire thesis by making perhaps an even stronger case for feeling and intuition, trumping all data and logic.
Does God exist? Should we rely merely on what we can “prove?” Can we trust our feelings? How often in a lifetime can we meet the same soul, if there is such a thing? What is quantifiable? And is that meaningless when we are faced with what cannot be explained? These questions are raised, filtered and refracted back to us through several different lenses—rigorous scientific research and breakthroughs, two great loves, death, birth and then a completely unexpected third act set in India that goes right through you. I Origins is a major movie, one about big things, delivered by smart characters, refreshing in this summer movie season.