In “I Origins,” his second feature wearing the multiple hats of writer-director-editor-co-producer, Mike Cahill demonstrates once again that he is a unique moviemaker, especially in American cinema. So far he has been using cinema to explore spiritual themes through an unusual approach to the science-fiction genre.
No, he’s not completely alone in this. Yet few filmmakers who premiere their films at Sundance and release them through the studio system — if Fox Searchlight can be called a studio — make such idiosyncratic, personal films on relatively modest budgets that nevertheless display a genuine, science-fictional nature.
By this I mean he’s not interested in outer space or rampaging apes but rather how by bending science and distorting known reality, he can ask metaphysical questions about our existence as human beings.
His multi-award winning “Another Earth” posited the implausible, nay impossible, existence of a dual or alternate reality, of another Earth where our other selves may be acting out the same or perhaps a different scenario. Now “I Origins” investigates the afterlife and the possibility of reincarnation.
Neither proposition is convincingly sketched, mind you; you must suspend belief to get to where Cahill wishes you to go. Some audience members and critics resist this. These no doubt are many of the same people who are more than willing to buy into Marvel Comics fantasies.
The problem for Cahill may be that he places his fantastic tales within the context of a thoroughly “real” world. Everything happens in a familiar reality into which he throws in a huge “what if?”
“I Origins’” title contains a bit of word play. Along with the origins of the “I,” of the individual human person, he is also exploring new scientific evidence about the other “eye.” Which is to say the discovery by Cambridge University professor John Daugman that every human being has a unique and measurable iris pattern, not unlike a fingerprint.
The “what if” here concerns an ardent molecular biologist, Dr. Ian Gray (Michael Pitt), who in his study of the evolution of the eye is determined to discredit the pseudoscientific Intelligent Design theory promoted by anti-Darwinians.
If he can show that nature and not an intelligent God designed the eyeball, then he trashes much if not all of the creationists’ arguments.
Therefore Dr. Gray does not believe in the existence of the soul. Yet when he meets his soulmate, an exotic young woman of Spanish-French heritage named Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) at a New York City costume party, he goes to extraordinary lengths to explain this connection to her in equally pseudoscientific terms — that their atoms once somehow commingled prior to the Big Bang.
Clearly Ian wants to have his cake and eat it too.
What is doubly intriguing about this erotic meeting is that she wears black leather and a face mask. So only her dazzling eyes — and these are the real eyes of the actress — beckon him. He is lost within their liquid mysteries. She quickly disappears yet through luck and those eyes he finds and pursues Sofi.
This romance transpires concurrently with his exciting research with an equally beautiful lab partner Karen (longtime Cahill collaborator Brit Marling). The two search for life forms without ocular capabilities, worms as it turns out, that might permit Ian to play God, as it were, and add sight through mutations in the lab.
Seven years later, Ian makes a stunning scientific discovery that challenges his pro-science, anti-religious beliefs. This discovery forces him to travel to India to either validate or discredit this new theory.
Two eye scans Ian views contradict the theory of the uniqueness of individual iris patterns. This leads him to consider the possibility of reincarnation.
I know, I know, that leap is not a scientific one. The soul, if one wishes to believe in such, would not contain the potential for replication of physical traits such as iris patterns or, for that matter, fingerprints.
This reminds me of a reincarnation joke about a person who on the point of dying makes a pledge with a friend to find a means to communicate to her about the afterlife if any exists. A while later, such a communication is indeed received but the living person Is puzzled about the commentary about continual sex and lettuce eating in this strange afterlife. But the reincarnated soul assures his correspondent beyond the grave that it’s not strange at all for he is now “a rabbit in Wisconsin.”
The philosophical concept of reincarnation doesn’t necessarily mean a soul will enter the flesh of a human being. And it certainly does not embrace physical elements that continue on in the next life, i.e., eyes or fingertips.
But Cahill puts you in the land of “what if” to ask questions that go beyond science, and in this case even philosophical beliefs. Can you be open-minded to science and to spirituality at the same time?
Cahill is a supremely confident filmmaker. In his second feature he extends his visual capabilities with dazzling Terrence Malick-like cinematography. And he certainly knows how to create rising tensions and sharp plot twists and to endow his characters with a life force.
Bergès-Frisbey is excellent in conveying a childlike spirit mixed with bohemian adventurer and possibly a spiritual personality, who is irresistibly drawn to her opposite in Dr. Gray.
Marling’s character meets these two in the middle — she’s a pure scientist, genuinely excited by possibilities in the lab, yet somehow this frees her from the conventions of jealousy and possession. Her relationship with Ian, loving though it may be, is one more lab experiment to her way of thinking.
Two more actors need mentioning. Archie Panjabi ably plays a woman running a community center in the slums of Delhi. A young girl named Kashish, who in fact does live in a Delhi orphanage in real life, plays her counterpart, a young orphan who may solve Ian’s metaphysical quandary.
American films like “Audrey Rose” (1977), from a script and before that a novel by Frank De Felitta, tackled reincarnation themes but within the format of extreme melodrama bordering on horror.
De Felitta’s interest in reincarnation was genuine. I recall an interview I had with him, in the Beverly Hills Hotel’s Polo Lounge of all places, where he regaled me with stories regarding people cognizant of previous lives or those who had found true soulmates.
But De Felitta and others in American cinema have struggled to create a fictional approach to such topics that doesn’t venture deeply into genre conventions and usually corny ones at that.
Among other things, Cahill shows how you can make movies about alternate realities or reincarnation — and perhaps ghost stories and for all you know demonic possession, without resorting to tired tropes.
“I Origins” boldly asks questions and worries very little about the plausibility of its storyline so long as this intelligently points the way to a further examination and understanding of what it means to be human.
This so far is the theme of Cahill’s work as a filmmaker. He may branch off into other areas and that’s okay too. But his is a deeply intelligent and inquisitive filmmaking soul, as it were. May he continue to deliver more smart, savvy films that force you to think.
Opens: July 18, 2014 (Fox Searchlight)
Production companies: Fox Searchlight Pictures presents a Verisimilitude/WeWork Studios production in association with Bersin Pictures and Penny Jane Films
Cast: Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Steven Yeun, Archie Panjabi, Cara Seymour, Venida Evans, William Mapother, Kashish
Director/screenwriter/editor: Mike Cahill
Producers: Mike Cahill, Hunter Gray, Alex Orlovsky
Executive producers: Adam Neumann, Rebekah Paltrow Neumann, Bonnie Timmermann, Adam S. Bersin, Jayne Hong, Tyler Brodie, Michael Pitt
Director of photography: Markus Forderer
Production designer: Tania Bijlani
Music: Will Bates, Phil Mossman
Costume designer: Megan Gray
R rating, 107 minutes