The science fiction genre is written by curious storytellers looking to the edge of the known universe and asking, “what if?” What if I could travel through time? What if I turned invisible? What if a semi-truck transformed into a fighting robot caught up in an intergalactic civil war with evil transforming robots?
In I Origins, filmmaker, Mike Cahill, doesn’t go for the type of epic science fiction we have come to expect in the summer. Instead of adventure to a galaxy far, far away, we go to cutting edge ocular science, which provides the launching point for a grounded character drama. Sure, it sounds somewhat clinical and it is, but we’re introduced to the subject by Michael Pitt as Dr. Ian Gray, a molecular biologist transfixed by the eye. Unlike most scientific geniuses in film, Dr. Gray isn’t afforded the shortcut of an epiphany moment, but rather, hours of dedicated research in the lab. With his surprisingly apt new lab partner, Karen played by Brit Marling, Dr. Gray believes that if they can build an eye from scratch in a worm without sight, they would be providing irrefutable proof for evolution and disproving intelligent design.
The central theme of science versus spirituality is, of course, a familiar debate that could easily devolve into a trite lecture played out in arguments between characters. However, Dr. Gray’s love for the eye goes beyond a nerdy obsession and when he looks into the eyes of the enigmatic Sofi played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey, her romantic notions of spirituality, karma, and the world beyond challenges his world of scientific inquiry. Like a spiritual scientists, Sofi wonders if a worm can be blind its whole life not knowing the world that exists around it, then what if humans just need an extra sense to feel the dimension that surrounds us?
I definitely expected I Origins to take us to a new spiritual plane of existence and watch Dr. Ian Gray get his Twilight Zone comeuppance for attempting to play God, but we never quite go there. Cahill keeps us at the edge of reality and allows these questions and ideas percolate within Ian, as he romantically moves on from spiritual Sofi to scientific Karen. The spiritual debate is certainly engaging, but the narrative unravels a bit in the second half and feels a little disconnected. Ian’s love life becomes emotionally complicated, but his scientific research, which drives the story, loses its focus. More often than not, I am a huge proponent of ambiguous endings, but here, Dr. Ian Gray thinks he’s essentially discovered reincarnation, but the audience remains less convinced. Furthermore, we’re even less convinced about why this breakthrough even matters.
While it’s not totally satisfying begin to end, I Origins deftly weaves ideas of science and religion together throughout a heartbreaking love story.