Before the screening of Mike Cahill’s I Origins, Matt Ravier, director of the US & Canadian Film Festival Possible Worlds, introduced the film by saying it was “more fictional science” than science fiction. This is an interesting distinction to draw and while I’m sure Matt had his own ideas of what the difference is, I decided to take the statement and runaway with it because I thought it might ultimately lead me back to why I found Cahill’s sophomore feature such a banal viewing experience. The film as a whole functioned despite its many questionable plot points and poor characterisation, but where it fails most is in trying so hard to be insightful as to feel like a sermon or motivational conference that you’ve been unwittingly forced to attend.
I Origins follows the story of a molecular biologist Dr. Ian Gray whose research into the origins of the eye is threaded through his personal life and makes him question the distinctions he draws between religion and science. The premise is primed to evoke thought in the audience but far from doing this, Cahill’s screenplay and subsequent direction insists upon babysitting the audience through every relevation and philosophical questioning, as to devolve any meaning that would have arisen. This starts with the script, which unnecessarily includes brief, and thus shallow conversations about religion and God that merely seem to reiterate what is already touched on in the narrative in content and in passing remarks between the main characters. Also, simply repeating ‘data points’ several times in scientific dialogue, doesn’t impress the validity of their scientific knowledge. Neither does merely giving them glasses in the laboratory and then taking them away when they’re at home or with a partner. I did however enjoy the use of location in the film in both New York and India, where the backgrounds and energy of the streets behind the actors managed to capture my attention more than the scene itself. Cahill uses several sweeping camera cranes worthy of a Marvel film to reiterate to the audience ‘this situation is so serendipitous’ and imply an otherwordlyness or spirituality that can arise in day-to-day life. In the context of the film however, the scope of these scenes seems disproportionate to the content. These shots would also be paired with heavy-handed symbolism and slow-motion action, which further distanced me from the film and confirmed just how much Cahill was trying too hard to put meaning on the screen. And this is where ‘fictional science’ comes into view.
‘Fictional science’ seems to be a niche that Cahill feels comfortable in and has found success in with his two feature length films Another Earth and now I Origins both winning the Alfred P. Sloan prize at Sundance for films that focus on science of technology as a theme. Perhaps this is one case where the touting the accolade of ‘Sundance Prize Winner’ can become misleading. Why I feel as if a simple description like ‘fictional science’ could be used to explain why I disliked the film is because Cahill so strongly insists that this is a real situation and a real world and the real function of science, but in developing characters, building narrative and employing scientific discourse is as far from realistic as possible. The premise of the film however is overly ‘fictionalised’ in order achieve the grandeur in philosophical scope that Cahill was attempting to achieve, but at the same time wanted to contain that within a narrative grounded in the everyday. This, in my view, resulted in the many incongruous and awkward plot points in the film and why the film was so contrived in failing to be both naturalistic and relatable, but also grand and scientifically unsettling.
Brit Marling’s performance is so over-acted, particularly in the laboratory where another clichéd bit of characterisation rears its ugly head in her introduction as the pretty first-year lab partner who is first underestimated but proves her abounding scientific knowledge. On the point of characterisation, I was just so deeply angered by the appearance of yet another manic pixie dream girl in Astrid Berges-Frisbey’s French-Argentinian model character Sofi (yes, Sofi without an ‘e’ if we weren’t yet convinced enough of how cool and charming she is) that I just didn’t care how her character’s storyline developed. To wit, the moment her character and Michael Pitt’s Ian Gray meet, she’s wearing a mask that only shows her eyes (if the scientist is studying eyes, everything in his life must entirely revolve around eyes?) and the first thing she does is quote something spiritual that when a timeless goddess meets the love of her life, she is both joyful because she knows that for him it is beginning, and sad because for her it has already ended. It’s difficult to form any connection to their relationship or her importance in the scheme of the film when Cahill insists on restricting her to nothing more than a two-dimensional cardboard cut-out of a pretty face than make a serious attempt to give her some sort of personality deserving of the love she garners from Pitt’s character. Michael Pitt is the one convincing part of this film, and is what allows the clumsy narrative lines to progress without causing too much of a disruption. Stephen Yuen also provides some sense of reality and likeability through his performance as Kenny.
I Origins simply tries to say too much too obviously rather than allowing the film to speak for itself. In doing so the director and writer Mike Cahill assumes that his audience needs to have everything spelled out through obvious dialogue and symbolism but would still easily impressed by what on the surface seems like an insightful philosophical discussion of the lines between religion and science. In attempting to craft a film that is broad in scope, Cahill seems to have suffered from tunnel vision and consequently left his script with several faults and weakness in plot and characterisation. There is not surer way to lose your audience than to attempt to force meaning than allow it to arise naturally, and that is what Cahill does throughout this film. Ultimately I Origins was boring and its concluding sentiments obvious, which could have been easily avoided had Mike Cahill appreciated the creative doctrine of ‘show don’t tell’ both in his writing and his direction.