A breath of the beyond into the ordinary, a flurry of coincidence beyond justification and explanation, something cosmic connecting star-crossed lovers. It is moments like these that make I Origins, from writer-director-editor Mike Cahill, compelling, intriguing, and moving – when it has moments like those. In the end, however, I Origins will probably be remembered as a cautionary tale, one about chains and their weakest links, and how even movies with moments of great care and beauty need strong foundations to buttress them. I Origins feels like a movie that exists for the sake of those moments, and ends up being a lesson about how film is like architecture. Without structural integrity, your gorgeous facade will crumble.
Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) is a lab rat evolutionary biologist who doesn’t believe in your silly God and is researching the evolution of the eye, at least on the surface, as a cudgel to smack around the Intelligent Design crowd. He meets, then loses, then re-meets the gorgeous love of his life, Sofi (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey), who is a spiritual free spirit with an accent yet still loves Ian, for reasons; he also has a brilliant lab partner, Karen (Brit Marling) who keeps her cards, intellectual and emotional, close to her vest. There is epiphany, discovery, and tragedy, and fast forward to the future when lives proceeding apace are blown askew by a scientific experiment that is not what it seems and sudden challenges to everyone’s faith in science and the science of faith. There are big emotions, big debates, and it all concludes in a hotel in Delhi where everything rests on the shoulders of a young orphan girl.
I Origins wants to be magical realism, but has way too much magic and not enough realism, and ends up feeling more like underdeveloped sci-fi as a result. Lapses of narrative logic plague I Origins. An iris match repeatedly astonishes our characters – they call it ‘statistically impossible’ multiple times – yet there was just another iris match five minutes ago. I Origins nonetheless rambles ahead, more concerned with big expressions of what it’s all about then thoughtfully delineating rules. It simultaneously takes too long to arrive at a predictable conclusion and invests insufficient time in having characters evolve in steps and stages rather than in rapid, head-spinning 180s.
The characters are largely placeholders in the film’s allegorical framework, of course, but even then they’re still lacking enough actual characterization to breathe humanity into the roles at key moments despite the best efforts of the cast. Pitt’s Ian is the one most stretched, foremost because some of the film’s romantic moments have an edge of the creepster to them (or is it just because I can’t banish his performance in Funny Games?). More importantly,relatively simple problems of character building and framing weren’t solved or addressed. If he’s the brilliant scientist turned famous author, why is it Karen who seems to do all the work and have all the breakthroughs? If he’s such a thoughtful author, why do we never see him writing? Why does he seem wholly incapable of basic Bayesian inference?
This is compounded by the film’s gender politics, which are plain bad. Every woman in the movie is alternately inexplicably irrationally supportive or inexplicably irrationally needy, none of them converse or seem to exist independent of Ian, and all of them spend most of their time saying and doing things instrumental to Ian’s emotional and intellectual journey as opposed to their own. The film’s attempt to mirror the classic romances of postwar Hollywood is a little too good, as it also mirrors their lack of self-awareness of how they used women and what that meant. This is compounded by references to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which (beyond being a cliche at this point) highlights the gap between the key insights into the moral and spiritual rot of the instrumentalization of women to feed mens’ egos. That’s what made Vertigo such a compelling film, and I Origins is seemingly unaware it has the same instrumentalization of women.
In its favor, I Origins has a keen, well, eye for the right image at the right time, and a genuine ear for the right music, not just emotionally thematically – note especially the three times Radiohead are used, and precisely what songs, what versions, when, and why. The film has an undeniable emotional logic and momentum, but one that’s unanchored to its themes and intellectual edifices. Between its moments of grand poetry and revelation, which feel far too much like busywork, there is narrative duct tape, first-draft placeholders, and not well-considered scenes in a carefully designed script. Indeed, those scenes are the ones that are also shot in banal handheld camera shots that make you feel like I Origins might have worked better as a novel than a movie – beyond its few central images shot in dramatic long swoops and set to swelling music, I Origins doesn’t quite feel fully-developed.
Clunky, on-the-nose dialogue abounds, which hinders both the development of the film’s key relationships as well as dragging its thematic tension between science and faith, down to the overly-literal and pseudo-intellectual level of a late-night college dorm argument. The film works best, in fact, when you view the entirety of that thematic material as a red herring, a proxy for a dialogue about loss, grief, and closure. In that context, the film’s concluding moments are genuinely moving and meaningful, but that context is far more difficult to maintain if you stick around for the “kicker” scene after the credits (it is a giant unforced error that spikes all the remaining mystery and ambiguity that added richness to I Origins in exchange for a bizarre punchline that basically frames the entire movie as a prequel to Clone High).
At its best, I Origins is a very good movie; the problem is that I Origins is rarely at its best. Howard Hawks famously defined a good movie as, “three great scenes, no bad ones;” I Origins betrays its lack of necessary care and nurture by meeting the first goal but ignoring the latter on its way. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s also not a good one, and for every quality worth recommending it there is an equal and opposite quality that makes me hesitate. It is often compelling but still overly long; it is clever and thoughtful as often as it is thoughtless or clueless; its performances are limited by thin characters, and its themes are limited by Cahill’s inability to show-not-tell, a flaw evinced immediately by an unimaginitive, uninspiring, and wholly unnecessary preface to the film. Indeed, that the bookend implied by the first scene is ultimately dropped – probably for the better – in favor of its willingness to conclude at its emotional peak without any dénouement, only to tarnish it with a literal last-second gimmick, is just the right metaphor for the film itself. I Origins is a bold and emotional movie that only has itself to blame for its failure to live up to its potential.