January 26, 2014



The writer-director Mike Cahill has staked out a unique piece of narrative territory for himself.  In both Another Earth and his new I ORIGINS, which debuted at Sundance last week (and won the festival prize for best science-based work), he explores the point where factual science meets not just science fiction, but something more metaphysical, an area requiring faith.  Although their filmmaking styles are very dissimilar, Steven Spielberg was onto something like this in Close Encounters, but for the most part sci-fi these days is more concerned with nuts and bolts and CG.

The protagonist of I Origins is, when we meet him, an ambitious Ph.D candidate named Ian Gray (Michael Pitt).  The whole history of Hollywood tells us that any man of science who disdains belief in God and proclaims that everything in the universe can be explained through reason and observable fact will be singing a different tune by the final reel, and in that sense I Origins proceeds down an expected path. Cahill’s script, however, gets us there in surprising and clever ways.  Ian’s particular pursuit is the study of the human eye, because religious fundamentalists who challenge evolution by citing “intelligent design” use the spectacular complexity of the eye as a mechanism that could only have been placed on Earth by a Creator.  Ian, with the help of his lab partner Karen (Brit Marling, who co-wrote and starred in Another Earth; that film’s co-star William Mapother also shows up here briefly), intends to demonstrate step by step, beginning with worms and moving forward, how the eye actually did evolve.

Even while he is casting his lot entirely on the side of science, however, Ian is entering a romance that has its share of luck, coincidence and mystery.  His fascination with eyes brings him into briefly passionate contact with the gorgeous French/Spanish Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), and he manages to find her again through a mixture of investigation and fluke.  They fall madly in love, their only quarrel his inability to go along with her belief in God and the supernatural.

Their relationship takes up the first half of I Origins, and it ends jarringly.  We move 7 years ahead, and find Ian married to Karen, who is pregnant with their first child.  Their proof of the eye’s evolution has become a scientific sensation.  Then a routine scan of their baby’s eyes leads Ian down a rabbit hole of fantastic possibility, which shouldn’t be disclosed here, but which forces Ian to question the foundations of his thinking, taking him physically as far as India (and psychologically much farther) to try and understand what’s going on.

Equal parts romance, philosophical inquiry and scientific detective story, I Origins keeps you off-balance even as it’s heading toward an inevitable conclusion.  Cahill has a bigger budget this time than he did for Another Earth, but his skill-set has also improved greatly, and I Origins is extremely well-paced (Cahill edited the film itself) and scored (by Will Bates and Phil Mossman).  Pitt, not an obvious choice to play a brilliant scientist, is a convincing mix of intellectual fervor and barely-restrained emotion, and Marling continues her first-rate partnership with the filmmaker.  Berges-Frisbey is playing something of a metaphysical Magic Pixie Dream Girl here, but it’s easy to believe that she would captivate and madden Ian.  Steven Yuen (as Ian’s best friend, a scientist who moves into the private sector) and Archie Panjabi (as a woman Ian meets on his quest to India) provide strong support.

I Origins may be too abstract for some and too sentimental for others, but with the right marketing–no easy task– by Fox Searchlight, which acquired the film during Sundance, it could find an appreciative mainstream audience.  At the Sundance Q&A, the film’s producer said that if all went well, this could be the prequel to the bigger story implied by this film’s ending.  (Consumer note:  don’t jump out of your seat when the end credits begin–there’s a Marvel-like coda that’s very important.)  Cahill has left himself plenty of room to further develop his tale, and his ideas.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."