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Review: What 'I Origins' gets right (and less right) about science

The indie sci-fi drama "I Origins," from "Another Earth" director Mike Cahill, is both refreshing and maddening when it comes to portraying science.

Michael Pitt and Brit Marling play the kind of scientists you don't typically see in films in "I Origins." Credit: Fox Searchlight Michael Pitt and Brit Marling play the kind of scientists you don't typically see in films in "I Origins."
Credit: Fox Searchlight

'I Origins'
Director: Mike Cahill
Stars: Michael Pitt, Brit Marling
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Like his previous film, “Another Earth,” Mike Cahill’s “I Origins” is a small sci-fi drama with big ideas. Cahill is clearly an obsessive layman; he knows his popular science. “Another Earth” played around with quantum physics and the theory of the multiverse. “I Origins” involves both the evolution of the eye and the growing technology around eye scanning, which could be even better than fingerprints at IDing people. Our hero is Ian Gray (Michael Pitt), a molecular biologist balancing research with his love life, including a doomed romance with mysterious French girl Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey).

In the religion vs. science debate, “I Origins” is very much on the side of the angels, which is to say the scientists. But it also wants to bridge the gap between science and that broad, often maddeningly vague term “spirituality.” In doing so, it goes right up to the line of being fuzzy and frustrating — but doesn’t quite go over. And yet it still commits some of the nagging sins it seems to think it’s against. Here’s some ways “I Origins” is refreshing and others in which it’s deeply frustrating:

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Michael Pitt's scientist in "I Origins" falls for a French girl with unscientific beliefs in "I Origins." Credit: Fox Searchlight Michael Pitt's scientist in "I Origins" falls for a French girl with unscientific beliefs in "I Origins."
Credit: Fox Searchlight

Good: Scientists are fun but still awkward


One of the first thing Pitt’s Ian Gray does is go to a crazy party and hook up with Sofi, a total stranger wearing a mask. This isn’t how it’s usually done. Historically in movies, scientists are recluses who don’t drink, don’t get tail and have shaky ethics, if not outright Frankenstein complexes (to cite a famous movie scientist-madman). Ian is none of these. His lab partner, Karen (Brit Marling), doesn’t appear to have much life outside the lab, but she proves to have emotional complexity in the second half, when we spend more time with her and find that she too has a (sometimes even kinky) sex drive.

Less good: They can be humorless and arrogant about non-scientific beliefs


Sofi is not like Ian: She talks about fate and past lives and the kinds of supernatural matters that would drive most materialists like Ian crazy. In fact, though he’s madly in love with Sofi, her beliefs do drive him crazy. Every now and then Ian snaps at her, rattling off humorless rants about how we should only believe in what can be proven by the scientific method. Cahill admires what Ian does, but these passages are clearly set-ups for him to have his arrogance ultimately knocked down, with Sofi proven to be the one open-minded enough to be, at least in a sense, right.

"I Origins" has a lot of crazy business about eyes. Credit: Fox Searchlight "I Origins" has a lot of crazy business about eyes.
Credit: Fox Searchlight

Good: What happens can still be explained by science


In its second half, “I Origins” heads into some fantastical places that we don’t want to spoil. In fact, it deals with an issue that is traditionally the purview of religion and spiritualism. And yet the film never acts as a broadside to science. Everything that is discovered in the film’s story is discovered through the scientific method. What’s more, the scientists don’t research it reluctantly. They’re excited to discover there may be proof of something that is typically considered supernatural. It’s an unfair and inaccurate stereotype that scientists would be angry to discover hard proof that, for example, an after life exists. That’s simply not true, and if such evidence materialized, they would be the ones enthusiastically trying to make sure it holds water.

Less good: It remains too ambiguous about its intent


No matter Cahill’s own intentions, “I Origins” could easily (if unintentionally) play into anti-scientific beliefs about the supernatural. There’s even a line where Sofi — upon viewing the worms experimented on in Ian’s lab — charges her lover with “playing god.” This isn’t refuted, and indeed Ian’s character arc can be read as going from a closed-minded scientist to someone open to fuzzy thinking. It doesn’t have to be read that way, but this level of ambiguity goes too far. One could easily take “I Origins” as being something that, at its core, it’s not: a screed against scientific arrogance.

After you’ve seen it — or if you simply aren’t afraid of spoilers — head here to see us discussing “I Origins”’ finer points less vaguely.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
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