You’ve never seen a movie like Mike Cahill’s “I Origins” before – not even Cahill’s unique first movie, “Another Earth,” which began with Earth’s twin suddenly showing up in the middle of the sky and then turned into a singular and wildly unusual guilt-ridden love story.
“I Origins” is the leading edge of something that seems to me more than a little stupendous at the movies these days – science fiction that actually cares about science. Even the pop pseudoscience of last week’s smash hit “Lucy” depends on just enough knowledge of real evolution to make for a solid basis for wild-hare fantasy.
“I Origins” hews far closer to real science than that. It also has very deep biological questions in mind.
The film, then, also is on the leading edge of genuine cinematic audacity showing up in movie houses at an unusual time of year, including “Snowpiercer,” “A Most Wanted Man” and “Lucy.”
There’s a catch to that, of course. For a certain type of moviegoer, “I Origins” is a movie just begging for the word “pretentious” to be smeared all over it like grape jelly. It’s probably not for those who want to see galaxies defended by fleshed-out cartoons.
On the other hand, if you’re partial to movies that are quietly mind-blowing, you’re going to need to go out and see it – and do so quickly, too, lest your minority audience compadres not be in strong enough number to keep it around too long.
Michael Pitt – a superb and very ambitious young actor who has worked with Bernardo Bertolucci and Michael Haneke and always is up for a challenge – plays a scientist named Ian. The human eye is his area of research – in particular an obsession with synthetically building a human eye from scratch.
On the prowl at a nightclub, he meets a woman whose eyes are striking and singular. He asks to photograph them. “Where you from?” he asks her. “Another planet,” she says in a French accent. (She is indeed French.) All of which is soon followed by the very brief sounds of leather-clad sex.
Quick cut. He can’t get her out of his mind despite his almost complete ignorance of anything about her except her eyes, leather and intimate parts.
He finds her and explains that his life’s work is tantamount to seeing whether God exists. He is not, to put it mildly, a fan of “intelligent design” theories of evolution. What she proposes, on the other hand, is close. “I think it’s dangerous to play God,” she says about his intention to create a synthetic eye.
You’re in a movie world, obviously, that is thousands of miles from cinematic spectacle on a screen the size of Lake Ontario. It’s a brainy movie that is most appealing to a brainy audience – at the very least an audience for whom uncompromising audacity is a virtue at the movies rather than an annoyance.
Tragedy intervenes in the most unexpected way in the story. Years later, the scientist has married his scientific partner (played by writer/actress Brit Marling). They have a child.
But he’s haunted by his crazily mysterious and lost French lover – especially the unique composition of the iris of her eyes that he thinks he sees again in the picture of a girl in Asia.
Where the movie goes from there is so utterly and wildly unpredictable – and with such bold consequences and implications – that you just have to stay in your seat completely bedazzled by its originality. (If, that is, originality bedazzles you rather than annoys you and makes you resentful at its disrespect for the “eternal” verities.)
All of this is done in Cahill’s accustomed way, which is totally idiomatic and underplayed realism, so that he’s never hitting you over the head with cinematic ambition at your expense.
He has made only two films now, and he is already one of the most exciting filmmakers in the English language.
It goes without saying that his actors are conspicuously thrilled to be working with him (in the case of Marling, she’s an old friend from student days). Pitt could certainly be making movies with greater commercial consequence. That Archie Panjabi of CBS’ “The Good Wife” (who plays his guide in India) would do this on the show’s hiatus is a vote of immense confidence.
You don’t have to believe the implications of the ending in the slightest to love it and be moved by it.
By then, I was so grateful that American movies have younger filmmakers like this that I was delighted by his ending.
It is literally true that I can’t wait to see what Cahill does next.
Starring: Michael Pitt, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Brit Marling, Archie Panjabi
Director: Mike Cahill
Running time: 113 minutes
Rating: R for language and nudity/sexuality.
The Lowdown: A young scientist whose subject is the human eye is obsessed by a woman he loved whose eyes were unique.