There is something new in the world – radically new in fact: science fiction movies with real science in them.
One of them, Mike Cahill’s “I Origins,” is opening Friday.
This is not the first time the 35-year-old filmmaker has given us a movie of head-rocking originality. His first movie was “Another Earth” (2011), a low-budget fantasy that began with our planet awakening to find our exact twin up in the sky looking down at us. Where it went from there wasn’t some apocalypse or comic book hoo-hah, but rather to an extraordinarily intimate and unexpected romantic drama about guilt, love and a prominent classical composer feeling things again for the first time since his wife’s death.
In two films – his first was co-written by his remarkable writer/actress/star Brit Marling – Cahill has turned into a filmmaker as original as Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson and Joel and Ethan Coen once were but a much quieter version. He’s a young American filmmaker truly devoted to subtleties of feeling and the value of human intelligence.
“I Origins” is an amazing fantasy about love, science and nothing less than the possibility of intelligent design in evolution i.e. the merging of science and religion.
Anyone who expects from the immense ultimate subject matter of “I Origins” that pomposity and/or brashness will festoon Cahill’s telephone conversation is confronted by something else altogether – a genuinely modest film creator who knows how much he’s asking from viewers who just aren’t used to naked audacity in movies, in particular during the summer.
When you ask him about the near-certainty of some audience members either not getting what he’s doing or much preferring sci-fi of more comic book flavor, he says, “It doesn’t dismay me at all. I feel it’s such a privilege that anybody’s watching what I’m doing in the first place. I tell you really, really sincerely: I’m really lucky there are people giving opportunities to me. … If we were out all night chatting until 4 o’clock in the morning and drinking a bottle of wine, this is the stuff we would talk about. To have any support to make that is a great fortune in my life.
“People either don’t get it or get it and they’re not interested. That’s all right. I DID steal about an hour and a half of their time, you know? … The people who DO get it are the people I’d like to hang out with. It’s like sending out a bat signal to your friend across the planet when they connect with your work. They’re probably people who’d be great company because you probably think together in more ways than just this.”
“I Origins” is about a scientist trying to synthetically reproduce a human eye. Much of it involves searching out the singular characteristics of eyes in a photo.
Cahill came from a family of scientists. To him, Thanksgiving dinner meant listening to his brothers talking about going into this question or that question. As the artist in the family, “I guess it’s a belief I have that these worlds will collide one day in the future – the feeling that science will catch up with what art sometimes suggests – maybe.”
As for basing his film entirely on a scientist fascinated with the human eye, he said: “I used to work for the National Geographic. When I was a kid I used to READ National Geographic. On my bookshelves I have all their magazines. I do remember a picture in color of this incredible Afghan girl – this incredibly striking picture. When I worked with the magazine I found out more about the back story from Steve McCurry, the photographer.
“He photographed this young girl in a refugee camp in Pakistan or Afghanistan 14 years prior. And every year he would get letters asking ‘Who is this person?’ He didn’t know because he’d only met her for about 20 seconds. After the photo, she ran. He didn’t even know her name. And so he went to try to find her years later. All he had [to work with] was her eyes – her very striking, magnificently light green eyes. It was not the color that was so striking, it was the Iris Biometric Scan [of her eyes]. So he scanned all these photos to see who was a match.
“And I thought ‘WHOA. THERE’s an opportunity to do something.’ ”
Not only, then, is this the kind of filmmaker who began his life working for National Geographic and collecting every issue; his tale of his cinematic background is just as singular.
“There are so many people I’m indebted to for being influences in my life. Julian Schnabel’s ‘Basquiat’ is my favorite film of all time, the film that made me want to be a filmmaker. I love ‘Blade Runner,’ I love ‘12 Monkeys’ I love [Krzysztof] Kieslowski’s ‘The Double Life of Veronique,’ I love Kieslowski’s ‘Red,’ ‘White’ and ‘Blue.’ I love ‘sex, lies, and videotape’ by [Steven] Soderbergh.
“When I was in college I saw all these in a series of films that made me understand filmmaking totally differently from just being the consumption of popcorn and soda and a story where the protagonist either wins or loses. … These are films that were revelatory about being entertaining in the way I look at the world. Or the way I understand my place in the world as a human. And how you love when you get comfortable with that complexity.”
I don’t expect everyone to be comfortable with the complexity in Cahill’s two films. But for those of us who are, he’s one of the most exciting filmmakers his age that we have.