All About Eyeballs
Reviewing a film like ‘I Origins’ presents a sort of observer’s paradox. I think I enjoyed it mostly because I was ignorant of it, and in communicating that to you, I risk destroying your ignorance and poisoning your enjoyment, thus retroactively negating my own review (also, Kyle Reese is your father). Which is to say: ‘I Origins’ is a strangely enjoyable movie that turns out to have been based on sort of a dopey idea. It casts a spell on you early on, and then the more it reveals, the worse it gets. In short, all of my relationships.
Not that I tend to research movies much before seeing them, which kind of defeats the purpose, but I usually at least know the general plot synopsis and the people involved. With ‘I Origins,’ the extent of my knowledge came from a cursory glance at my screening invite, which had a closeup of an eyeball on it. From this I had assumed, without even a conscious thought, that I’d be seeing some run-of-the-mill horror movie about a haunted something or other and a scared girl. It’s not a wild assumption, there’s a long and storied connection between crappy horror movies and eyeball imagery.
Expecting a straightforward skull-thumping horror movie, I instead found myself sitting there, head cocked to the side like a confused puppy, as some sort of charmingly obtuse creation parable played out before me. Or… something. The only thing about ‘I Origin’ that’s obvious at first is that the Macguffin is eyeballs. There’s an eye in the poster, an eye on the screening invite, the opening credits are made of eyes, and the first character we meet is a doctoral student in biochemistry played by Boardwalk Empire’s pouty-lipped bad boy, Michael Pitt, whose hobby is taking pictures of eyes. “Seven years ago, I saw the eyes that would change my life,” he tells us via voice over.
We flash back with him to some kind of hip New York loft party on Halloween, where he goes outside to smoke and meets a lithe-limbed lass in a bondage costume wearing a Rod Stewart wig and a black nylon over her head covering all of her face. Except for, you guessed it, her eyes. He asks if he can take a picture of her eyes, which is exactly the kind of eccentric rock star horseshit girls eat up, if you believe Mystery, and soon she’s telling him, in her delightfully pan-European runway model accent, a story about a mythical bird that experiences all of time in a single moment. This bird, she is happy and sad at the same time when she meets the one she will fall in love with, foreign girl (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) explains, happy because she knows she’s in love instantly, but sad because she’s already fallen out of love and watched everyone die or something. He’s smart enough to know a come on when he hears one, and soon they’re having garter-popping unprotected sex in a dirty bathroom with masks on, the hottest kind of sex imaginable until you’ve done missionary on your own comfortable bed in an empty house with a partner with a clean sexual history.
Michael Pitt is so happy to be visited by the angel of bondage (and the fact that his character is named “Dr. Ian Grey” makes you wonder if you’re about to see some 50 Shades of Grey knockoff about the joys of toilet sex), that he tells her “I hope you won’t regret this.” Oops. The spell is broken, and she’s out of there faster than you can say “but what about my boner?!”
He goes back to his job at the lab, where he works with colorblind mice researching the “pax 6 gene,” which he says is the last step in an evolutionary link. The pax-6 gene controls, you guessed it, eyeballs. If he can find the gene and build an eyeball from scratch it will finally disprove the existence of God and prove the creationists wrong. But while blasphemy is his passion, his life feels suddenly empty. He misses that one girl, the toilet sex one with the eyeballs. He’s desperate to find her, but all he has to go on is a picture of her beautiful, beautiful eyes. (Which, somehow, is more societally acceptable than any other body part. Can you imagine him roaming the subways with nothing but an upskirt pic, shouting “HAS ANYONE SEEN THIS MONS PUBIS?”).
Just when he’s at his lowest, the universe seems to present him this strange set of coincidences involving the number 11. He buys a lottery ticket at 11:11, and gets 11 cents change just as the 11 bus shows up (where’s that ‘Spinal Tap’ amp when you need it?). Uncharacteristically, he follows the clues and gets on the bus, which eventually leads him to a billboard, and there they are, her eyes! (Turns out she is a model after all). He tracks her down, they quickly fall in love, and soon he’s living every boy’s dream of banging a glamorous foreign model and having profound discussions about God while listening to Sigur Ros.
On one hand, they’re every bit the classic Dharma and Greg mismatch – the spooky space girl who tells him things like “we’re already married in the spirit world,” and the grounded research scientist who believes only in facts (which you know because he repeats “I believe in facts” at least three or four times). On the other hand, writer/director Mike Cahill adds just enough nuance and realism that you can’t help but be swept up in it, making their relationship feel more like ‘Eternal Sunshine’ than ‘Along Came Polly.’
Which also leaves the question, what the hell are we watching? Is it a relationship drama? A thriller about the number 11? An eyeball-based film about the nature of belief? Why is it ‘I’ Origins and not ‘Eye’ Origins? Eye… I… 1… 11… – is this guy just doing Jeff Goldblum-like word association? At its best, ‘I Origins’ is this wonderfully discursive headscratcher that leaves you transfixed, wondering if all the elements are going to add up to something or if it’s just Mike Cahill’s deceptively coherent schizophrenic break.
It’s at its worst when… well, when it finally starts to reveal what it’s about. When Michael Pitt’s similarly fact-inclined lab partner played by Brit Marling exclaims “what if the eyes really are a window into the soul?” it’s enough to make you want to snap your garters back into place and bolt out of the theater, mortified that you ever let this movie stick it in you. My God, is that what we’ve been watching? So, spoiler alert, ‘I Origins’ seems to have been based on the creationist idea that the eyeball is too complex to be explained by evolution. An idiotic argument that’s the equivalent of saying that calculus is wrong because it’s too hard.
But here’s my wild premise: just because it’s based a silly idea – What if there’s an order to the universe because eyeballs? – I don’t think that makes it a bad movie. As much as it seems to have been sparked by a strange creationist idea (which, full disclosure, I didn’t even know existed before I saw the movie) it doesn’t feel entirely like an argument for that idea. It’s pretty honest and unmannered (at one point a character gets caught jerking off to a dead girlfriend), as well as beautifully shot, such that it feels like a filmmaker trying work something out for himself rather than religious propaganda. It isn’t even based on a particular religion, just a vague spirituality, sort of like a young Darren Aronofsky’s take on ‘Cloud Atlas.’
At one point Dr. Ian McPoutylips takes his kooky girlfriend to the lab where he’s working with blind worms (“Thees eez what you do all day, you torture worms!?” she dopily demands). He talks about disproving the existence of God, and she wants to know why he would do that. Because he has no evidence for it, he says. She points out that the blind worm has no evidence for light, because it lacks the sensory capacity to experience it. Even though, there it is, surrounded by light for its entire life. Hokey? Sure, a little. But it’s a nice thought, and what’s the process of storytelling if not the creation of metaphors through which storyteller can understand the universe?
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.