Mark Reviews Movies

I Origins


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Mike Cahill

Cast: Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Steven Yeun, Cara Seymour, Archie Panjabi, Kashish

MPAA Rating: R (for some sexuality/nudity, and language)

Running Time: 1:53

Release Date: 7/18/14 (limited); 7/25/14 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 24, 2014

It is not too surprising that a movie that forces its characters into a debate between science and religion at nearly every turn would get both wrong with almost equal frequency. The hyped-up conflict between these subjects is baffling. We can only suppose that it exists in order to sell books and secure speaking engagement, attract viewers and readers to various media outlets, and attempt to rile up political bases for elections.

The central notion of the clash is that science and religion cannot coexist—that each is somehow out to get the other. If religion is right, what is the point of science when everything in the universe can be explained by a higher power creating and controlling all? If science is right, what is the point of religion when everything in the universe can be explained by equations and formulas? This is how reductive the debate has become, and I Origins buys into that insulting simplicity while feigning to be above it.

The fact is that science and religion do not need to gel. Science studies the provable; religion believes the unknowable. Each exists just fine on its own because there is no correlation between the two.

Here is a movie that has one character explaining how the Dalai Lama stated that, if science were to categorically disprove a tenet of his faith, his beliefs would need to change. There's obvious wisdom in this statement, and it's countered by the utter stupidity of the character's follow-up question: "What would you do if something spiritual disproved your scientific beliefs?"

One imagines writer/director Mike Cahill typing this line and sitting back in his chair with a self-satisfied grin on his face. It's nonsense. It's rhetorically clever nonsense, but it is nonsense, nonetheless. It's especially absurd in context, given that the person on the receiving end of that question is a man of science—an overt skeptic of all matters of faith. We expect him to laugh at the loaded proposition of the query—that spiritual things not only exist but also can be proven. Instead, he looks at his questioner with thoughtfulness, seriously contemplating an inquiry that has no foundation in his or any sensible worldview.

The man is Dr. Ian Gray (Michael Pitt), a top scientist in the field of the human eye. His goal is to discover each step in the evolutionary development of that wonder of nature, thinking that such a detailed chart will knock down those who question evolution and believe that the complexity of the human is proof of an "intelligent design" to and, as it follows, a designer of the universe. We know Ian doesn't believe that thought on any level. He repeatedly protests that he is a man of science, of logic, of reason, and of other things. He, a first-year student named Karen (Brit Marling), and his lab partner/roommate Kenny (Steven Yeun) are attempting to find a species that has the genetic predisposition for an eye but has not developed one of any kind.

Ian is also reeling over a missed connection with a mysterious woman at a Halloween party. She is Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), whose eyes are the most unique Ian has ever encountered. The two meet again by chance on the train, although, before that, he "followed" a series of elevens—the price of his cigarettes and a lottery ticket, the time and date, and the number of a bus—to discover those eyes on a massive billboard. Sofi insists she sent him the signs—that she has a sixth-sense connection to the spiritual world. Ian believes it's poppycock.

They debate these ideas constantly, and Cahill's screenplay reduces these arguments to such general terms that none of them is as worthy of contemplation as Cahill believes. The movie's emotional core, though, is more solid, especially at and after the story's major turning point, which watches Ian come to a gradual realization about Sofi and, seven years later, deal with the aftermath. There's a genuine complexity to his feelings about the woman, whom he knows is childish but can't quite shake from his mind.

The movie's notions of science become even more simplistic after the turn. Ian has a family, and a secretive doctor (Cara Seymour) runs a strange experiment on his young son under the guise of testing for autism. It leads to an unlikely discovery: Iris patterns in the eye are not as unique as Ian and his colleagues believed they were (The probable rational explanations for this science-fiction leap are completely overlooked, which, again, makes no sense in the context of these characters). There is some pondering about eyes being "windows to the soul," and Ian takes an impromptu trip to India, which results in a kidnapping.

The whole point is for Ian to try to prove or disprove a hypothesis of the spiritual variety, and it's a theory that Cahill never convinces us Ian would consider—either emotionally or, particularly, intellectually. Surprisingly, I Origins sticks its landing with a final revelation that, for once, actually understands faith on its most basic level (The movie's science is never convincing). This, of course, doesn't make up for everything that has come before it.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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