Review: Sci-fi and metaphysics make for an uneasy mix in ambitious ‘I Origins’

PARK CITY – It's hard to believe it was 2009 when Mike Cahill was here with “Another Earth,” one of the two films that put Brit Marling on the map during that year's Sundance. I'm not sure I ever got around to reviewing “Another Earth,” a film that just didn't work for me. I thought there were some interesting ideas in the movie, but almost all of them were pushed to the background in favor of a familiar story about guilt and grief, which left me frustrated more than anything.

After seeing his new film, “I Origins,” I think it's time for me to admit that I'm simply not on the same storytelling wavelength as Cahill at all. This time, he's once again using what is ostensibly a science-fiction hook to tell what is ultimately a story about emotional states, and I have no problem with that in theory. My biggest problem with “I Origins” is that it telegraphs its ending a good hour earlier, and then spends that hour spinning its wheels through slow-motion plot mechanics to get to what could have been a fairly powerful moment in the right context. This is a film that wants you to be rocked when that final piece falls into place at the end, but it's one of the least surprising surprises I've seen in a movie.

Michael Pitt stars as Ian Gray, a scientist whose specific field of study is the eye. More precisely, he believes that he can demonstrate the evolutionary triggers that determine what species develop what visual organs as a way of refuting the idea of intelligent design. He is looking to disprove God's existence by showing that he can trigger an evolutionary jump in a lower species himself, which is about as good a definition of “hubris” as I can come up with.

One night, at a party, he meets a woman wearing a costume that hides most of her face but that leaves her eyes exposed. He asks her if he can photograph her eyes in close-up, something he does for his work. Before he knows what's happening, they're in a bathroom having quick, thrilling sex before she bolts, hopping in a cab without giving him any way to get in touch with her. He buries himself in his work again, and his new assistant Karen (Brit Marling) turns out to be a gifted scientist in her own right, pushing forward his work with her breakthroughs.

At the start of the film, we are told that this is the story of the eyes that changed the world, a bold storytelling claim. Ian does eventually use his photos of the mystery woman's eyes to track her down. He recognizes them in a perfume ad, and this leads him to Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), a gorgeous and ethereal young model. She was indeed the woman he met that night, and maybe my favorite scene in the film comes when he finds her and the two of them wordlessly reconnect. It's a beautiful tiny moment, and my frustration with Cahill's films comes more from the parts I do enjoy than the vast chunks of what I don't like. It's easier when someone's not particularly good at visual storytelling, but that's not the case with Cahill. He's good at making moments, but I think both films are a catastrophe when it comes to telling a story from beginning to end.

Ian and Sofi fall in love, and for a time, things are great. Ian starts to make some breakthroughs at work with Karen's help, and in one monumental day, he has the biggest professional triumph of his life and a personal high point and a person low point back to back. Cahill doesn't just drop a tragedy on Ian and Sofi; this is nuclear annihilation, an accident so insane that it ruins Ian completely. It is only with the help of Karen that he's able to bounce back, and when the film jumps forward seven years, it begins to play out its main schematic plan. I don't buy the film emotionally, and I really don't buy the film on a plot level. In many ways, this is what “Upstream Color” could have been made by someone who is bogged down by literalism when telling a story that demands some big sweeping emotional metaphors.

Berges-Frisbey is the stand-out in the cast. She is a lovely girl, and there is a delicacy to the work she does in the film. She is a bundle of contradictions, and always interesting. The film suffers when she leaves not only because of the almost stifling melodrama, but also because there is more life in the sequences with her, more of a sense that what we're watching is actually happening between people and not just between actors.

I'm always aware of Cahill as a filmmaker, and it feels like he's frantic to make his points here. I've certainly seen other films where I realized early on where something is going, and I've still managed to enjoy them. But this is like watching someone do a magic trick and they don't realize that they're showing you the way it's done because of how they're standing, so the whole time they're doing the trick, you're looking right at the trap door they're about to use, and it doesn't work when they do finally drop it open. Cahill practically stops the film, circles his destination in red, announces his intent, and then proceeds to treat it like a giant mystery for another hour of Michael Pitt walking around India staring up at billboards.

I'm certainly not writing Cahill off, and if you found “Another Earth” thought-provoking, you may well like this one. But it happens sometimes… you just realize that you don't connect with the way a filmmaker tells his story. I liked enough about this one that when it fell apart for me, it felt like a real disappointment. So far, this is the one true bummer for me at Sundance, and I just can't recommend it.

Also, one last note… what's with the title? As with Lynn Shelton's “Laggies,” I'm baffled not only by the title, but by the idea that anyone involved with the film finds that title remotely appealing or enticing. I have no idea what a “laggie” is, and the notion of a film about a scientist looking for an origin species he can use to help advance his eye research being called “I Origins” is so cloying it makes my skin crawl. I fully expect both titles to change before you ever get a chance to see the films commercially, but at least “Laggies” delivers as a movie once they sort the title issue out.