A few years ago, a low-budget science fiction film called Another Earth dazzled unsuspecting patrons at Sundance Film Festival. With his unique approach to genre — contemporary surrealism with heavy philosophical undertones — director Mike Cahill made a strong impression with scant budget or resources at his disposal other than a camera and a vision. As indie directors go, Cahill is considered one of the industry’s most promising young talents, one with the potential to cast a wider net as his career progresses.
I Origins, Cahill’s anticipated followup, isn’t quite the big leap forward as many were hoping, but it is a similarly clever — albeit flawed — cinematic experience.
The film, which opens Friday at AMC Quail Springs 24, follows Ian (Michael Pitt, Seven Psychopaths), a young molecular biologist whose obsession with the eye lures him to Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), who has, frankly, amazing eyes. Ian is a staunch atheist, a believer in science and reason, but Sofi is more idyllic in her spirituality. While the two engage in an unlikely romance, Ian and his lab partner, Karen (Brit Marling, The East), face both a potentially game-changing scientific discovery and an unspeakable tragedy.
Dealing with a premise that is so philosophical in nature can be a delicate balancing act, and as forward-thinking as it is, I Origins never embodies the intellectual moviegoing experience it wants to be. Many of its crucial plot developments are a bit far-fetched or reliant on coincidence, and it spells out every little detail rather than leaving any room for interpretation. This was likely done as a means to seal all its plot holes with a snugly plugged cork, but its packaging is unusually neat for such an ambitious feature. There are other moments when its musings on religion — whether for or against — hedge on preachy. Cahill draws his line in the sand early and often, pandering to our own predispositions a little too heavy-handedly in anticipation of an inevitable payoff.
Despite its flaws, I Origins does have a ton of heart. Its more grandiose moments strike an emotional chord (in part thanks to the music of Radiohead) that is often ignored in the realm of science fiction. Its premise is also unique enough that we are willing to accept our own suspension of disbelief and submerge ourselves in its intrigue. Cahill’s approach to storytelling is unlike that of any other filmmaker, presenting his audience with a unique and exciting hypothetical scenario and executing with delicate precision.
I Origins fails to embody the post-Another Earth progression we were hoping Cahill would make. It is, however, another example of his incomparable talent and the oddly engaging lens through which he sees his craft. As the film draws to a close, you get the impression that Cahill has a masterpiece in him somewhere; it’s only a matter of how deep he is willing to reach.