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I Origins

I_Origins_posterI Origins Directed by: Mike Cahill Cast: Michael Pitt, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Brit Marling Running Time: 1 hr 55 mins Rating: R Release Date: July 25, 2014 (Chicago)

PLOT: A scientist (Pitt) tries to find the cure for blindness while he falls for a person (Berges-Frisbey) with really captivating eyes.

WHO'S IT FOR? People who like the science scenes of Lucy, but with more question marks by the end.


"The eyes are the windows to the soul" is an aphorism that has degenerated to groan-worthy cliche throughout its billion casual usages. It is also an unfortunate piece of dialogue within I Origins, and by no coincidence the film's thesis statement, of which writer/director Mike Cahill then attempts to restore profundity to this once poetic phrasing. With the eyes pondered as a means to identify souls, I Origins often keeps its exploration into the debate of science and spirituality at a dangerous whimsy. Despite a few jolting sequences that express promise for a filmmaker who may evolve into a confident, unique voice by a third or fourth film, I Origins uses scientific and spiritual question marks to create a semi-thriller of emblematic literal poetry.

Cahill handles this motto to frame it in a story of unexpected cosmic love, which parallels a potential world-changing scientific breakthrough. Michael Pitt's character Ian is a doctor obsessed with the meaning of eyes (he even takes close-up flash photos of them, like a jerk!) and is hard on the trail with his lab partner Karen (Brit Marling) to find a cure for blindness, a type of miracle whipped out by Biblical characters, and now ready to be legitimized by New York science hipsters.

Outside of the lab, Ian notices a mystery woman named Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) whose exotic eyes yank his emotionally and scientifically heartstrings, but he bungles getting her number after an impromptu bathroom conjugation at a rave. In one of the film's more verbose usages of cinema's delicate magic, the almighty coincidence, she happens to be a supermodel, so her eyes are displayed on a billboard. When he finds her, she takes a liking to him, the each intrigued by the other's different perspective on life; she is spiritual, he is scientific. The two descend into wild giddy love, complete with quirky/extremely choreographed courting that only happens in movies.

I Origins embarks on its winding journey after an accident ripped from a Final Destination movie changes both Ian and Sofi's lives. The film focuses on Ian years later, now a popular scientist, whose efforts to super-diss Creationism are challenged by the possibility that perhaps indeed the eye is ... a window ... to ... the ... well, you get it.

Spurred by how science and spirituality provide different explanations for the same thing, and also the notion that science has yet to fully explain the intricacy of the eye, Cahill creates a broad journey that takes the film far beyond its roots of scientific jargon and cinematic romance. The places and tones of I Origins are unexpected, and sometimes that quality is enough to override the literal devices that are holding this story together. For moments like when a human goes blind after a revelation, on the less heavy hand there's the intriguing mystery introduced in the second act, about the soul of a new character who upgrades Ian's scientific quest beyond giving sight to lab worms.

I Origins finds its greatest purpose in its climax, built up after the film's semi-thriller, deliberate, yet questionably intellectual pacing; it is a moment for the film as much as the filmmaker himself. As Pitt descends a set of stairs in slow motion to the heavenly harps of a Radiohead song (methodically teased by an acoustic version earlier in the movie), I Origins wraps itself up with a tidy bow of ambiguity, an endorsement of the limits to when the scientific form of film can be most effective - by asking questions. Of course, consistent with its poetic ambition, the words of singer Thom Yorke underline the film's closing sentiment - "I will see you in the next life." Zing!

This film is certainly sophomoric within Cahill's ascendance, marking a distinct expansion from his work with the tiny budget and smaller scale Another Earth. For his second film and first effort with big stars, he now has an international tale involving a tres chic supermodel girlfriend character, prime usage of a Radiohead song, and a running time that could be slightly humbled. In the end, I Origins' biggest setback is likely that it uses such clout for a story that reads safely, its bigger ideas mixed with those of less subtlety.

Nonetheless, Cahill does succeed in sharing a seed of curiosity, and in changing, even ever so slightly, the way in which we view the world. Eyeballs will seem a little more curious after seeing this film. There's still time for finite storytelling in Cahill's career, should he be as inspired with his storytelling as much as his scientific/spiritual perspective on the world.