In his debut feature, Another Earth (2011), Mike Cahill – and his co-writer/star Brit Marling – crafted a low-budget indie drama within the context of a larger sci-fi environment. A young woman (Marling) tries to make amends for a terrible mistake while the rest of the planet is distracted by a duplicate Earth that appears suddenly in the sky. The movie has a lot of flaws, not the least of which is a script lacking in coherent motivations. Cahill’s latest, I Origins, which premiered at Sundance, is another mixture of sci-fi and drama, but that juxtaposition alone isn’t enough for Cahill.
Michael Pitt (Boardwalk Empire, The Dreamers) stars as Ian Gray, a scientist who has dedicated himself to debunking the “intelligent designer” argument by proving the complex evolution of the eye. He and his lab partner, Karen (Marling again), begin to make some headway in this endeavor just as Ian becomes involved in a very intense relationship with a mysterious and spiritual young woman (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). These contradicting logical and mystical sides of Ian’s life weave in and out of each other as his career progresses, leading him in unexpected directions.
I won’t get any more specific with the plot summary. One of I Origins‘s greatest strengths is the unpredictability of the story. For better or worse, I can often get a pretty good idea of where a movie is going relatively quickly – that’s why I really don’t like watching trailers. I Origins, however, managed to surprise me throughout. The story goes into some really interesting places.
Interesting, but not necessarily good. I don’t know. I’m having difficulty separating how I feel about the film’s message from what I think of the movie as a piece of entertainment. There is a lot of the science vs. religion debate in I Origins, so it relies greatly on coincidence (or contrivance). Obviously it is intentional, just based on the nature of the movie, but that doesn’t make it successful. Cahill’s script (written solo this time) is an improvement over the one he and Marling wrote for Another Earth – there are some really beautiful sentiments present – but it is a little overwritten at times. Cahill might still be one more feature away from that really strong screenplay.
Luckily the strong cast is present to elevate the material. Pitt is famously a weirdo (his Q&A after the screening did nothing to dispel this perception), but his eccentricities do make for strong performances, even a relatively restrained one like this. Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead) pops up every now and then as much-appreciated comedic relief from Pitt’s self-serious scientist. And – most pleasantly – Marling shows a lot of range in her incredibly likable turn as Karen. She was the strongest part of Another Earth, but her character was just so mired in sadness and depression. It is incredibly refreshing to see a more dynamic side of her.
Marling isn’t the only carryover from Another Earth. Cahill also brings his strong eye for shot composition and editing. Working with cinematographer Markus Forderer, Cahill starts with some beautifully photographed shots of the human eye, before going on to do the same thing with New York, India, and even Michael Pitt’s perpetually-pursed lips.
I Origins may not satisfy every viewer, but it is worth a watch, even if it is just to see an emerging director’s artistic work take a step forward. There is an aesthetic to I Origins that is reminiscent of last year’s Upstream Color (though not nearly as beautiful or vague), and while Shane Carruth’s sophomore effort may be more successful than Mike Cahill’s it is still great to see young, visual directors take on complicated ideas that have been debated for generations. And religion.