The origins of life and the question of intelligent design

"I Origins" is mostly well designed as a film. Except for giving us any answers about what it is saying.
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"I Origins" takes a look at questions about life.

"I Origins" is mostly well designed as a film. Except for giving us any answers about what it is saying.

"I Origins" contemplates the argument for and against the concept of intelligent design by telling a story of science, love, loss and speculation. It is first set seven years in the past of an amorphous near-future, and then in this future’s present. It doesn’t look much different then our current world.

In fact, it looks very much like a diaphanous, dreamily focused independent art house film, attuned to the visual shorthand of commercials but with delusions of profound significance. This isn’t necessarily a detriment to the movie’s own intelligent design, which offers thoughtful and even, at times, convincing manipulation of some far-out ideas.

The tragic love story that takes over the first half of the film offers the poignancy of transitory images: fleeting trains, a soaring peacock, a near-missed affair. When balanced against the grand theories being tested in the cramped but fertile laboratory two of the three main characters work in, the movie establishes a provocative tension between the spiritual and the scientific. Beliefs in God, or an afterlife, or the age-old idea of love at first sight, struggle against the prosaic boundaries of rational thinking. For much of the film, we are invited to wonder how these two parallel worlds can coexist and even enrich one another.

The easy-on-the-eyes cast includes Michael Pitt and Brit Marling as lab partners attempting to sequence the gene proving the eye is a product of evolution, thereby disproving the theory of intelligent design; and Astrid Bergès-Frisbey as the mysterious free spirit who entrances Pitt, a molecular biologist, first with her striking pupils and then with the rest of her body. Their scenes together are so playful and entrancing that it isn’t until later, when Marling makes an important discovery back in the lab, we realize Pitt’s lover knows next-to-nothing about his work. Apparently test tubes and lab specimens didn’t qualify as viable pillow talk.

Bergès-Frisbey turns out to be a jealous pouter and a less-than good object for Pitt’s more grounded, mature, intentions. So, after his girlfriend’s convenient exit, he discovers his true soul mate was standing right next to him all along. Up until this point, the film had me. The director Mike Cahill, whose  2011 Sundance hit "Another Earth" exhibited a haunting clarity, makes science sexy and cinematic. There is one rack focus from a faraway train to words written in erasable marker on a window that was quietly gorgeous. He is a filmmaker exploring deep, albeit unformed ideas of our place in the universe, who is also willing to subtly express his feelings on religion and politics. But here he falters on the follow-through.

The movie jumps ahead in time. Pitt and Marling have a baby that becomes a pawn in a brief and obscure experiment, and this leads to a sudden re-examination of the couple’s groundbreaking discovery in evolutionary biology. What happens next, however, is anybody’s guess. Pitt flies off to India to investigate the possibility the eye is more mysterious than he previously believed. The experiment involving their baby, which should have led to criminal charges, is completely forgotten.

A young girl in India, possibly bearing a strange, metaphysical link to Pitt’s long-gone lover, willingly allows herself to undergo a puzzling, and frankly rather silly, test involving flash cards. And then the movie ends after one more scene involving an elevator, another link to Pitt’s old girlfriend. What are we to think?  Not sure. For a film that began in a fecund petri dish of serious ideas, it ends up in drippy obfuscation.

This artice appeared earlier on the author's blog, The Restless Critic.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Rustin Thompson

Rustin Thompson

Rustin Thompson is a filmmaker, film critic and indie radio deejay. He enjoys strong coffee, red wine, IPAs and his wife and grown children. He is comfortable with the fact he will never be rich, but grows petulant if he thinks too much about it.