Sundance Review: 'I Origins'

“I Origins,” premiering at Sundance from writer-director Mike Cahill (“Another Earth”), fuses evolutionary biology and the spiritual through the life of Dr. Ian Grey (Michael Pitt), a microbiologist specializing in the field of vision. At first, Grey is trying to achieve minor medical miracles like curing colorblindness in mice; it’s all part of his personal scientific quest to demonstrate that the eye – for all of its marvelous complexity – is a product of gradual, small evolutionary changes as opposed to a creation of some unknowable-yet-present force that has intelligently designed the eye with an invisible hand, a piece of biological engineering so complex and wonderful that it must have been intentional.

His new lab assistant, Karen (Britt Marling) decides to aid him in that quest; while Ian has cataloged the 12 steps between organisms with the simplest possible eyes and the complex human eye, Karen wants to find a species – any species – which is sightless but still has the dormant genetic ‘switch’ that, turned on, will generate a very basic eye in that species which previously had the potential to see.

There’s a lot of science in that recap, and there’s a lot of science in “I Origins, at least in quantity, if not quality. And very early on, you sense a striking difference between Cahill’s first feature film “Another Earth” and “I Origins.” In “Earth,” Cahill (and his co-writer Marling) created a big, pseudo-scientific happening that served as a metaphor (see title) that became a way to explore and understand the film’s characters and themes; in “Origins,” a big, pseudoscientific happening becomes a metaphor that the characters and themes then have to explore, explain and expound about.  At one point, Ian reads a Richard Dawkins book, and you can imagine Dawkins popping into the scene and saying to Cahill, like Marshall McLuhan in “Annie Hall,” “You clearly know nothing about my work …”

Ian (Michael Pitt in an understated, coolly rational performance) also falls for Sophie (Astrid-Berges Frisbey) he originally meets anonymously at a Halloween party; he asks if he can take a picture of her eyes, as he often does with people, they begin a spontaneous dalliance and then she leaves; he later tracks her down through that photographic record with some gentle prodding by coincidence (or, really, not-so-gentle) to make them connect. Their connection is immediate, intense and then ruined by tragedy; 7 years later, after her passing, Ian and Karen are married with a child on the way.

But Ian is still haunted by Sophie. And when their son Tobias is born, what seems like a scientific and computing error during an identifying retinal scan says that Tobias’s retina pattern – which science says should be unique – is that of another person,  an older Black farmer from Boise, Idaho. It’s a coincidence … but not to Dr. Jane Simmonds (Cara Seymour), a retinal-patter specialist looking for the fingerprints of some unseen engineer in what seem like coincidences and data errors. And Ian and Karen start trying to figure what exactly it is Dr. Simmonds is looking for in Tobias’s eyes.

Marling is fine, even if she has also has to move things forward with leaps of faith (“You have to go to Boise …”) that are obviously meant to make the script’s trudging seem to dance a little.  Watching “I Origins,” I was reminded of one of Carl Sagan’s most astute observations: “When people say ‘Science doesn’t have all the answers,’ what they mean is ‘We don’t have all the science.’” Here, Cahill is making up science to solve questions with made-up answers – and neither are especially interesting. But the film is attractively shot by Markus Forderer, and Cahill himself edits the film, deftly in the moment but somewhat drearily in its completeness. The score, moving and elegant and in keeping with the tonal shifts of the film (whether you like those shifts or not)  by Will Bates and Phil Mossman – aka Fall on Your Sword – is perhaps one of the better achievements of the film.

Again, Cahill’s made-up pseudoscience certainly gets the film’s themes and big ideas center-stage, but with the grating clumsiness of a cart being pushed by a determined, beautiful, idiot horse. It may be worth noting that the script, this time, is Cahill’s and Cahill’s alone; at the same time, “I Origins” is a lot lighter, looser and (intentionally) humorous than the grimly straight-faced “Another Earth” … but the script still strains to reach its intended apex, and while the third act involves a trip to India to find another seeming retinal-match statistical error that may not be an error, the film’s mid-credits coda is a needless twist that feels like the last twist of a knife that didn’t quite draw blood or strike home earlier. “I Origins” is about on-par with “Another Earth,” but it’s still disappointing that a film so obsessed with the eye has such a fuzzy, blurred vision of what it wants to do.

SCORE: 6.0 / 10