Editor’s note: You can also check out our in-depth discussion of I Origins on the FilmWonk Podcast.
I worry that some people will come away from I Origins believing that it has abandoned its post in the apocalyptic battle between science and religion – that after spending easily half the film with atheistic scientist Dr. Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) fastidiously attempting to model each of the evolutionary steps in the development of the human eye, the film veers off into more conventional territory. That by delving into the supernatural, the film strips away its ambitions and becomes yet another Hollywood-kumbaya tale of how we should probably all just get along and believe what we want. But based on the evidence presented in the film, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
In the film’s opening scene, Ian meets Sofi (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey), a model with whom he strikes up an immediate connection (i.e. they have sex in a house-party bathroom 30 seconds after meeting each other). To the film’s audience, they merely have chemistry. But to Sofi, they are driven by destiny. She believes that they knew each other in a past life, and that their improbable meet-cute is proof-positive of their supernatural connection. Like all manic pixies, she swoops away before Ian can get her name, and when they subsequently meet for real and strike up a whirlwind romance, one thing is clear – these two are deliciously, recklessly in love with one another, almost to the point of absurdity, given Ian’s care and attention to detail when it comes to his scientific pursuits.
His study is molecular biology, with a focus on the evolution of the human eye. His lab assistant Karen (Brit Marling) and fellow researcher Kenny (Steven Yeun) seek to fill in the gaps in scientific understanding of the evolution of the human eye, in order to silence one of the most prominent rallying cries of intelligent design – the notion of irreducible complexity. As the idea goes, certain structures, such as the human eye, are so biologically complex that they could not have evolved on their own from simpler structures without the guiding hand of an intelligent designer. There’s plenty more to read on this subject, but the film offers a fascinating treatment of the issue. Karen proffers that the human eye clearly did evolve, so the gaps are irrelevant – why waste time trying to fill them in? Ian counters by explaining that the gaps matter precisely because they’re being used to shoot scientifically inaccurate holes in evolution. The film distills the essence of scientific understanding into this simple back-and-forth. Why do we need to fill in the gaps? Because they’re there, and because we think we can.
Karen takes this ball and runs with it, trying to find an extant animal species that does not possess the ability or organs for the sense of sight, but possesses a particular gene that indicates that it could develop the trait. With 400,000+ sightless species to choose from, this is truly a needle-in-haystack pursuit, but Karen and Ian believe that if this species exists, they could genetically engineer an eye from scratch by forcing each of the incremental mutations to happen one at a time. Force the animal first to sense the presence of light, then its intensity, then its direction, and so on – until you have something like an earthworm with a human eye. These are the two competing forces that drive the first half of the film – there’s Ian’s romance with Sofi, driven by love (and, in Sofi’s case, by faith as well). And then there’s his drive to explain some of the deepest mysteries of the origins of life.
“Why do you work so hard to disprove God?” asks Sofi. “Disprove him?” replies Ian, “Who said that anyone has proven him?” Sofi’s perspective is underdeveloped and underplayed, and I’d say this is easily the film’s biggest weakness. It became evident as the film went on that this was likely a deliberate choice on Cahill’s part (Karen gets a bit marginalized as well) but I still found myself wishing for more. The film’s second half leans more heavily on Ian’s cataloguing of individual iris patterns. That is to say, he compulsively photographs people’s eyes whenever he meets them – it’s just a thing he does. And this is when the film begins to dip more heavily into the raging inferno of science vs. faith. I can’t speak at length on this subject without spoiling the film’s brilliant and mostly unpredictable second half, so I’ll just say two things.
First, Brit Marling, even for her medium-sized part in this film, continues to offer one of the most compelling screen presences I’ve seen. I’ve enjoyed her performances in both films I’ve liked and disliked (including Mike Cahill’s last, Another Earth). Karen is actively driving the team’s research for much of the film, which is interesting, but many of Marling’s best moments come later in the film. There’s a difficult and awkward scene between Ian and Karen late in the film that was absolutely pitch-perfect. Both characters put their humanity on display in a manner that was completely unexpected. This scene was raw, real, and I can’t imagine any other pair of actors pulling it off so well.
Second, this film directly addresses a point raised in the recent Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate on creationism. Just like most of Hollywood’s attempts to mingle science and faith, I personally found this debate to be a waste of time – a protracted exercise in feckless back-patting for either side. But there were two very telling answers to a question from the audience. The question, in broad strokes, was this: “What, if anything, could change your position on this issue?” You can view their answers in full in this video, but here’s an approximation. For Creationist Ken Ham, the answer was essentially “Nothing could change my mind. I’m a Christian.” For Science Guy Bill Nye, the answer was… “A single piece of evidence.”
That’s the scientific process in a nutshell – we find a piece of evidence that contradicts prior theories, so we test on and develop new ones. I Origins sets itself apart from other half-hearted Hollywood dalliances in science and religion by presenting scientists who really act like scientists. In the face of an anomaly that challenges their prior understanding, their reaction is…let’s do more science. This is a superlative point made in a subtle enough manner that I’m genuinely concerned about the audience taking the wrong idea away from the film. But all I can say is where the evidence took me personally on this film. It was a gripping, fascinating, and deeply affecting film, and it succeeded in exploring some complex and cutting-edge issues in a manner that felt consistently human and relatable. It is a stunning piece of near-future sci-fi, and easily one of the finest films of the year.
FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10