NOTE: This is a reprint of my review from the Sundance Film Festival. I Origins is in theaters now in limited release, expanding on July 25th.
Brit Marling's string of highly-intelligent thrillers goes to a whole new level in I Origins, her second feature alongside director Mike Cahill, the two of them bursting onto the scene at Sundance three years ago with the heady sci-fi drama Another Earth. It was that same year Marling and director Zal Batmanglij debuted the intoxicating Sound of My Voice, helping to establish her as a thoughtful new voice on the indie scene, someone who wasn't willing to compromise her intellectual pursuits in favor of wider audience appeal. She's found that audience anyway, and with I Origins she and Cahill take viewers through a complicated, thought-provoking journey investigating the connection between religion and science.
But this isn't solely Marling's film; the script she co-wrote with Cahill centers largely on Michael Pitt as Dr. Ian Grey, a molecular biologist obsessed with the human eye. For decades, scientists have used the eye as proof of the evolutionary theory due to its stunning complexity. This would seem to run up against the old adage that "the eyes are the windows to the soul", and that argument between the spiritual and the analytical proves to be the launching pad for a smart, occasionally confounding film that combines romance, thriller, and philosophical elements to create something wholly special.
The film begins, appropriately enough, with a flurry of images of the human eye. They are as unique and identifiable as fingerprints, and Ian is consumed with tracking their evolution in an effort to disprove the existence of God. At a costume party he meets a masked French woman, Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), an enigmatic free spirit with dazzling eyes Ian has never seen the likes of. After taking a photograph of her eyes to add to his collection, they share a brief romantic moment and a moment of deep emotional connection. She disappears afterwards, and Ian sets off to find her.
Something, perhaps fate, seems to be drawing them together, and soon they are reunited and embarking on a whirlwind romance that at first feels a little trite and disconnected from Ian's purpose. As they begin to learn more about one another, it becomes obvious just how different they are in just about every way. Sofi is a free spirt with a firm belief in the existence of God and the idea of past lives and an afterlife, which runs head up against Ian's reliance on facts and figures. Not that any of this holds back their growing love, and as we're taken deeper into the relationship the film takes the shape of a pure romance, far removed from the coldlyscientific way it began.
With the help of his lab partner Karen (Marling), Ian continues his research but is obviously distracted. Just as Karen makes a groundbreaking discovery that changes everything we ever knew about the eye, an unexpected tragedy rips Ian and Sofi apart. Jumping ahead a few years, Ian is now married to Karen and they are expecting their first child. Karen's earlier discovery has made them respected in the field and Ian a man of some notoriety. But their evolutionary theories are challenged after tests on their son yield some strange results that unlock a deeper mystery; one that sends Ian on a globe-hopping journey that will force him to confront his past and his most hardened beliefs.
Directed with intimacy and soul by Cahill, the film takes many forms that normally wouldn't make for a cohesive whole, but they end up building off one another in fascinating ways. Through the lens of science, Cahill and Marling explore the idea that something unexplainable and greater than all of us is out there. The word "ambitious" is thrown around a lot but that is truly the case here, at least in terms of asking big questions and forcing the audience to take a skeptical look at their own notions of faith and spirituality. While the opening act is a little dry as it takes place mostly in the laboratory, Cahill slowly but assuredly ramps things up by adding new elements into the equation, constantly keeping you on your toes. You'll want to pay attention to every detail, every word, as it all comes to a satisfying conclusion that recalls everything previously experienced. A moody atmosphere not too far removed from Another Earth adds to the film's mystique, bolstered by a stirring soundtrack that makes the best use (the only good use??) of Radiohead in a long time.
If Another Earth had a better concept than actual execution, I Origins finally makes good on the potential many had seen in Cahill. A haunting, expressive film with a deep sense of wonder, I Origins is a fascinating entry into the sci-fi genre, and rewards those with an unending reservoir of intellectual curiosity.