Writer/director Mike Cahill's 2011 Sundance Film Festival Winner "Another Earth" was an emotional portrait of a woman surviving her past while navigating an uncertain future. The fact that it also included an intriguing sci-fi element about another Earth entering our solar system was what made the film stand apart and receive well-deserved acclaim.
So expectations are high for Cahill's second feature "I Origins." This time he takes a similar sci-fi-esque approach to the common dilemma of science versus faith. The concept here is all about the origin of the eye itself and how a molecular biologist named Ian (Michael Pitt) starts to question what he believes after tragedy strikes his girlfriend Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). While continuing his research with his lab assistant Karen (Brit Marling), the two make a discovery that will change the way they look at the world, and perhaps how the world will look at life around them.
The best thing to do when reviewing films like this is to not give too much away. Already, the trailer for the film gives away key plot points that can impact your viewing of the film. It's best to go into this cold, knowing the basic premise but nothing more. Cahill has lofty ideas and there are many aspects to "I Origins" that harken back to the brilliance of "Another Earth." As is his style, Cahill's pace is studied, and he does not rush through to his twists. Here he carefully sets up the relationship with Sofi so we see the evolution of their relationship while he studies the evolution of the human eye. And Sofi's eyes become a character all their own, and will remain that way throughout the story.
Some audience members might have their patience tried because the bulk of the mystery here is placed in the second half of the film. While this allows for Ian and Sofi's relationship to develop and deepen, it also means we aren't totally sure where the film is going for extended periods of time. It all works itself out in the end with a few surprises, some of which you can see coming, others that are truly unexpected.
Cahill's connection of the eye to the soul and how this impacts the characters can sometimes be a bit too spot-on, and there are points where the audience might be ahead of the characters. All that aside, there are thoughtful beats that make you ponder the events that are unfolding in a more emotional way. When a character is being tested for a preternatural connection she has to another subject, the confusion and desire to please the tester is palpable. You can see how the tester's choice of words is affecting her answers, which are then skewing the results. Similarly, all through the film we are led to believe that Ian and Sofi are destined to be together - possibly in a more universal unexplainable way. But there is a telling moment where Ian admits, "I knew that it wasn't mean to be." It's those honest moments that make Cahill's work stand out. He takes the extraordinary and places a truthful ordinariness beside it.
Pitt ("Boardwalk Empire") is terrific here, proving he can be a leading man, whereas he is most commonly taking roles where he's kind of a jerk. He carries the film as he is in almost every scene, and we feel his struggle to maintain his scientific beliefs with a "faith" he is suddenly confronted with. Berges-Frisbey is lovely, and Britt Marling (who starred in and co-wrote "Another Earth") is always a welcome presence in these types of films, as she brings a natural ease to her roles.
This film might not work for everyone, but it brings up an interesting and thoughtful debate about faith and science. There are no easy answers to the ending of the film, although depending on which side of the debate you fall on, you might totally believe it lands on one side or the other. Regardless, it's a beautifully made and elegantly told examination that proves Cahill is still one of the best up-and-coming filmmakers/artists in the biz.