Mike Cahill’s “I Origins” – A faithful rendition of the scientific method

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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.

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“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.

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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

SIFF Roundup: “Another Earth”, “Kosmos”


Directed by Mike Cahill
Written by Brit Marling and Mike Cahill

Another Earth is an ambitious film, to be sure. It depicts the sudden appearance of another planet, seemingly identical to our own, in perfect view in the skies above New Haven, CT. The planet appears in nearly every outdoor shot of the film, which made me momentarily wonder if a planet that is visibly larger and closer than the moon in geostationary orbit might be catastrophic for our planet’s tides, tectonic plates, continued human existence, and so forth.

While the film doesn’t directly address these issues, it’s possible that similar worries are flowing through the head of Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling), a 17-year-old student who has recently been accepted to MIT. On the night that Earth Two appears, she is driving under the influence and gazing up at the new planet, and the distraction is sufficient to send her careening into the family station wagon of music professor John Burroughs (William Mapother from “Lost”), putting him into a coma and instantly killing his wife and son. At this point, the film skips ahead 4 years, as Rhoda emerges from prison and gets it into her head to reconnect with John (who has since awoken) to apologize, and because she was a minor at the time of the accident, her name was sealed in the court records, and he has no idea who she is. At this point, the film effectively ditches its sci-fi premise and becomes an exploration of an extremely ill-advised relationship between the two, as well as a study of grief and regret. Earth Two becomes a cipher – an ever-present reminder of what Rhoda has done that could have been replaced with virtually anything else – a photograph? A roadside memorial?

It was in that sense that the film was disappointing. As Rhoda enters a contest with a private space agency (in a nice bit of worldbuilding) for the first commercial flight to Earth Two, we’re meant to believe it’s something she desperately wants for herself, but the film never quite sells this idea. Instead, it just ends up comparing unfavorably to a film like Gattaca, in which the romance of spaceflight and the unrelenting desire to achieve it make up an ever-present and thoroughly convincing backdrop. This film gives us Rhoda’s prior interest in astronomy, as well as the occasional gaze through a telescope (in broad daylight, through a window), but we’re never sure if she really wants to go to Earth Two, or if she simply no longer wishes to live on Earth One, where she’s caused so much pain and suffering.

The film has an undeniably effective sci-fi premise (on-the-nose metaphors notwithstanding), but it never quite succeeded in portraying a world in which such a mindbending event has occurred. All the fascinating bits of hard sci-fi are relegated to momentary snippets from talking heads on radio and TV, and the few everyday people that we meet never quite seem like their lives have been altered significantly. A sudden third-act revelation about the occupants of Earth Two is also not explored in sufficient detail, particularly by those who are considering making the trip.

Nonetheless, Marling and Mapother’s performances are convincing, and effectively sell the increasing stakes of their relationship as Rhoda continues to hide her true identity. While Another Earth doesn’t succeed as a piece of science fiction, it is at least somewhat effective as an exploration of grief and regret.

FilmWonk rating: 5.5 out of 10


Written/directed by Reha Erdem

As a general rule, I will not seek out writer/director interviews in order to increase my understanding of a film that I intend to write about. Since this film was followed by a director Q&A, I was not expecting to write a review – but for Kosmos, I will make an exception. First, because there is enough inexplicable weirdness in this film to make David Lynch blush. And second, because the Q&A only illuminated the extent to which a shit-eating grin transcends language barriers, as Erdem’s good-natured amusement at the audience’s befuddled response (and refusal to answer any questions in detail) was apparent even via translator.

The film begins with the titular Kosmos (Sermet Yasil) appearing outside a Turkish mountain village and immediately saving the life of a boy drowning in the river. The boy is ostensibly frozen to death when Kosmos plucks him from the water, but walks away nonetheless, the first of many to be aided by Kosmos’ ability to cure all manner of ailments, both physical and mental. He also speaks in very formal, almost scriptural language, expounding in broad strokes about the nature of God, man, good and evil, and so forth. He also breaks into a cheese shop and steals money from the cash drawer. And he also courts the girl of his dreams, Neptün (Türkü Turan), via a giddy, animalistic call-and-response game, in which the two chase each other around the village while blasting high-pitched, ornithic love-screams.

While Kosmos is a bizarrely fascinating character – equal parts Doctor Who, Jesus Christ, and psychotic hobo – he is but a small component of this densely packed film. Old men in a tea shop debate a petition to open up the border to trade, even as their wary attitudes about outsiders become readily apparent. The army conducts some kind of exercise nearby, giving the town a constant rumble of distant munitions explosions. A satellite is also poised to crash, and we hear snippets of its failing radio signal throughout the film. And what’s more, the townsfolk complain about this as if it’s a common occurrence.

I don’t dare summarize any more plot (I’ve omitted a story lifted wholesale from Weekend at Bernie’s), but suffice to say, there’s a lot going on in this film, and I was completely taken in by it. Kosmos is an incredibly rich (and beautifully shot) experience that I suspect will become even richer on subsequent viewings. While its weirdness for weirdness’ sake wore on my patience a bit by the third act, I’ve still found myself pondering the lives and interactions of this small-town slice of life every day since I saw the film. From the politicos in the tea shop to the random flocks of geese, I would gladly spend more time with all of them – even Kosmos with his migraine-inducing bird calls.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10