I Origins seems designed to provoke more “Is there God?” debate. There’s already been enough of that bologna this year, with God’s Not Dead, Heaven is for Real and Son of God answering, “Yes, indeed, there is.”
Darren Aronofsky’s Noah might fall into the bologna camp too, but Aronofsky avoided ridicule (mostly) by casting Russell Crowe and Anthony Hopkins, and not Greg Kinnear and Kevin Sorbo. He also seemed less concerned with the biblical implications of the flood story and more with berating humans for eating meat or thinking the Bible is the end-all be-all.
Writer-director Mike Cahill’s I Origins gets at the religion angle in a more spiritual (read: indecisive) way, treating the characters in it who believe in God (Sofi, played by nymph-like Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) with apparent contempt, and those who don’t (scientist Ian, played by Michael Pitt, and scientist Karen, played by Brit Marling) with seriousness—until he decides to treat them with contempt as well.
That’s because I Origins is muddy and self-serious, and it wants to have its neo-hippie no-religion fantasy while also playing the kinda-sorta-maybe-there-is-intelligent-design card. It’s a bit exhausting, and whatever goodwill the film establishes it then loses by dicking with the audience’s emotions.
Ian is a scientist studying irises, trying to prove the eye is the perfect example of evolution. And if the eye is the perfect example of evolution, there’s no God. At least that’s what he thinks, until he meets the aforementioned exotic Sofi at a Halloween party. She’s wearing a mask that conceals everything but her eyes, which he takes a photo of moments before she leads him to a bathroom for hot, unprotected sex. (He botches it and she bails.)
The next day, consumed with the image of Sofi’s unusual green irises, he experiences a series of coincidences that leads him to a billboard ad near his lab featuring a photo of—you guessed it—Sofi’s mug from the nose up. He tracks her down and waits for her in her favorite diner, but misses her and ends up bumping into her on the train instead.
She’s somehow not creeped out, and before long they’re living together in her apartment as they hurtle toward marriage. Not before, of course, they establish that he’s an atheist and she isn’t.
Meanwhile, Ian works with Karen in the lab (she’s a Ph.D. candidate), and he’s suspicious of her enthusiasm until she hits upon an idea that he should have thought of years ago to prove the eyes have it (ha), evolution-wise. And then there’s a lab accident. And then there’s a tragic accident that leaves Sofi dead and Ian wondering what the hell he’s going to do with the rest of his life.
It’s at this point in the movie—about 40 minutes in—that I Origins starts to go off the rails. It’s not really believable that Ian would fall in love with Sofi to begin with; they’re more opposite than Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat. But there has to be a plot and it’s not unreasonable to expect an audience to suspend disbelief. And—this is key—without Sofi, dead or not, the rest of the movie wouldn’t take place.
It’s not really a spoiler that she dies; take a look at the trailer. But after her death, Ian and Karen become consumed with iris studies in a way that they didn’t anticipate, but the audience surely will.
That’s not to say there aren’t moments of affecting emotional upheaval in I Origins. When, for example, many years later Ian discovers a connection between the eyes of deceased loved ones and those of living children, you’d have to be a monster to hope against one pair belonging to Sofi.
You’d also have to have two double espressos to stay awake while the movie catches up to the audience. Eventually, Ian discovers the familiar set of green irises and sojourns to Iowa and India, complete with a whole lot of spiritual hand wringing.
Getting back to the neo-hippie no-religion fantasy versus intelligent design debate, it’s not so irritating that I Origins posits there may be a god. But it’s just so coy about the whole thing. Why go to the trouble of making the atheist characters question their own beliefs if we’re only going to arrive at agnosticism?
No matter how many big emotional climaxes there are in the movie’s final 30 minutes, that coyness eventually becomes maddening. (Plus, it’s hard to read much emotion from Pitt’s deadpan face.) The questions would all be fine if Cahill knew what message he was trying to convey. In the end it seems to be, “Eh … maybe God is real? I dunno, judge for yourself!” Can’t you get the same message from a couple bong hits and an all-night bullshit session?
I Origins (R)
Dir. and writ. Mike Cahill; feat. Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Steven Yeun
★★ 1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Opens Fri, Aug 8 at Santikos Bijou