The multi-talented actress/writer Brit Marling has become an integral part of an independent film brand through her recent artistic collaborations with filmmakers Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij. With high-concept, budget-conscious titles such as Cahill’s Another Earth and Batmanglij’s The East as well as Sound of my Voice (Marling stars in and shares writing credits with their respective directors on all three), we have come to expect a glaring common denominator from the products of this brand: a steady, pseudo-brainy suspense that eventually leads to a borderline ridiculous twisty revelation. It would be easy to shrug these showy efforts off, if they weren’t as polished and fiendishly entertaining as they were (with the sad exception of the dreadful Another Earth). And with Cahill’s I Origins (in which Marling stars, sans a writing credit), the struggle between the temptation to mock and submit oneself to ostentatious pleasures has never been greater. Through its nearly 2-hour running time, I Origins will give you many reasons to hate its guts (hipster scientists, anyone?). Yet again, if only it weren’t so damn ambitious and entertaining.
You’ve got to hand it to Cahill for bravely attempting the near impossible (and instantly snark-inducing) task of telling a story on the harmonious co-existence of spirituality and science. The main theme of I Origins is rooted in putting “certainty” at odds with “doubt”, and challenge “scientific sureness” with concepts such as coincidence, intuition, faith, and afterlife, concepts that are routinely (and naturally) defied by science. Ian, who happens to be a brilliant molecular biologist studying the evolution of eye to ultimately disprove God (a convincing Michael Pitt playing a character with very little convincing attributes), is at the center of the story. He meets Sofi (Astrid Bergés-Frisbey), a quirky young woman with a unique pair of eyes, at a Halloween party. Following a consciously hipster-ized romance between the two, peppered with frivolous/playful moments, faith-driven encounters, silly outfits, and fitting music tracks (the stellar soundtrack includes futuristic-sounding, dreamy tunes composed by Will Bates and Phil Mossman), Ian loses Sofi to a tragedy (this much, the trailer tells you) and shortly after, marries his sharp lab partner Karen (Marling), who has a compatible worldview and intelligence to his. Still continuing their eye research years after Sofi’s passing, the two now-world-famous scientists/consequent atheists and brand-new parents get confronted with the possibility of God and the continuity of human soul after death, which sends Ian across the world to India in search of answers.
Cahill has voiced in earlier interviews (as well as the Q&A following the film’s Sundance premiere) that he is fascinated by scientists and comes from a family of them, all of whom helped him a great deal in fine-tuning his characters’ believability; and that he’s done a tremendous amount of research to ensure everything sounds scientifically authentic and convincing. One naturally wishes he had approached his implausible plotting with a similar mindset instead of an evident “I’m going to blow your mind” drive. Thus, as guiltily fun-filled and awe-inspiring as it may be, the greatest problem with I Origins –as encapsulated by its pointedly pretentious title- is how seriously it takes itself while offering very little credibility into its plot turns. For starters, Sofi’s dreamy existence and the events that lead to her contrived death serve no purpose other than benefiting Ian’s future research. And the process Ian and Karen go through to first disprove God, and then to ponder the existence of soul, feel sparse and half-baked. Not to mention the film’s insistence to never place any of the duo’s groundbreaking findings in a larger scale. It seems as though all their earth-shattering discoveries (at least until the film’s ending) only concern the handful of characters on screen, despite potentially being ideas that could change the course of humanity.
One can certainly get caught up in these issues, and similar nonsense that are a dime a dozen in I Origins, but when it comes to a high-concept/low-budget sci-fi flick that manages to control a firm level of tension throughout, you can also wonder “where’s the fun in nitpicking?” You may be right and we might as well file this –along with its mind-bogglingly bombastic ending (stay through the end credits to see for yourself)- under “guilty pleasures” and call it a day.