You've got to hand it to Mike Cahill and Brit Marling. The writer/director and his muse actress (and sometimes writing partner) are always thinking outside the box when it comes to their projects. Each film they've done (separately or together) has been quirky and dealt with familiar concepts in new and fascinating ways. But their newest film, I ORIGINS, presents an interesting idea but completely mishandles it, so much so that takes the audience out of the film. Which is a shame because one of the best things about this team is that they've taken abstract subjects and made them accessible.
For what it's worth, I ORIGINS starts off intriguing enough: Eight prior to the central story, PhD student Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) meets and falls for an unidentified woman decked in head to toe leather and a ski mask who seduces him at a party. Fascinated with the human eye, he asks if he can take a picture of her eyes. After things get a little hot and heavy, he questions aloud whether they are moving too fast. To which she responds by pulling away from him as a single tear drops down his face. She disappears out of the picture much to his bewilderment.
At this point in the film there are already so many questions that this single encounter inspires: Why is she in disguise? What--besides her eyes--intrigues him so much (they barely share enough information about themselves to possibly attract one another)? At its strongest, the films plays with the idea that two souls can be destined to be together, defying all logic. But it muddles that notion with a messy scientific subplot that just gets in the way. Ian later reconnects with the mystery woman by chance on a subway, learns her name is Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) and they embark on a whimsical affair and even talk about marriage. Trouble is, she's a spiritual being who believes in things she can feel but cannot see, and he strictly believes in things that he can see and prove through science. They're two opposite sides of the coin who can still engage in compelling conversation without having really anything in common at all.
Their dialogue, though not particularly fleshed out, could have made for a great premise on its own (but possibly would have looked dangerously similar to what Terrence Malick tried to capture in To the Wonder). But the lovebirds' romance is interrupted, jolting the film seven years ahead to Ian as a molecular biologist with a new woman in his life who complies with his logical sensibilities--his lab partner Karen (Marling), a romance that despite its convenience and more cogent appeal still manages to seem random and out of place given the fact that they had a strictly professional relationship that catapulted into something much more. What's even more puzzling is when Ian admits to Karen that he never really saw a future with Sofi (Seriously, despite the fact that he proposed marriage to her?). This comment just made him sound like the "child" he accused Sofi of being.
It's this kind of contradictory writing that often frustrates the film, and takes away from what we can only presume it's trying to ask: Can logical people believe in souls and higher powers? If you go by this film, scientists, the very epitome of logical people, can be in love without having any belief in something as intangible as love, proven by Ian's somewhat cold and dutiful relationship with Karen as opposed to Sofi. The idea of love, souls and afterlives are in direct conflict with their ideals. But then again, Ian is clearly emotionally crippled by his stunted relationship with Sofi that it might be that that is propelling him further away from Karen. Which is to ask, are logical people better known as the more common phrase "emotionally unavailable?"
Again, there are concepts in I ORIGINS that are generally interesting, but the execution is so messy that half the time you don't really know what it's trying to say. This is hampered by the scientific themes that become subplots by the end of the film. They're not fully explored. Ian is fascinated by the eyes and what they can tell us. But for someone who only trusts logic, why is he so focused on finding the soul through the eyes? Why would someone like him even care? What role does his scientific research play? It just doesn't make much sense (especially for those of us who aren't fluent in science of this nature) and is never fully explained, even when Ian travels across the world to reconnect with a soul he had long lost through a pair of anonymous eyes.
The film is nearly two hours and quite loopy given its length. There are far too many times when the story simply looses its footing and falls into another tedious direction, leaving some angles completely dangling. Though Pitt, Marling and Bergès-Frisbey's performances are all engaging (along with Steven Yeung and Archie Panjabi, in thankless roles), I ORIGINS is a misstep for Cahill.
Rating: C- (** out of *****)
I ORIGINS is in select theaters July 18th.