erik lundegaard

I Origins

I Origins (2014)


Let’s imagine a few things:

  • That reincarnation is real
  • That the eyes are truly the windows to the soul
  • That our eye signature—as unique as our fingerprints—follows us from life to life

What would you do with this set of circumstances? What story would you make out if it?

Writer-director Mike Cahill (“Another Earth”) envisioned a movie set in the near future when people would know who they had been in past lives. They would know the mistakes they had made, the crimes they had committed, who they had loved and what they had lost. It might explain why they acted the way they did. And from that, a story. He planned to call it “I.”

Written byMike Cahill
Directed byMike Cahill
StarringMichael Pitt
Brit Marling
Astrid Bergès-Frisbey
Steven Yeun

He also envisioned a movie set in the present, or near-present, when we finally had scientific proof that reincarnation was real. He thought of it as a prequel to the other movie.

Unfortunately, he made the prequel first.

$11.11 on 11/11

“I Origins” isn’t a bad movie but it is disappointing. Michael Pitt plays Ian Gray, a floppy-haired, hipster scientist with a habit of taking pictures of people’s eyes. Does he do this with animals, too? I think just people.

At a costume party early in the 21st century, he meets a mask-wearing free spirit, whose eyes he photographs, and who then kisses him, takes him to the bathroom for sex, and then abandons him there. He’s stricken, stunned, but he doesn’t know who she is. The next day at the university lab, where he’s a star grad student, he meets his new first-year lab assistant. Her name is Karen (Brit Marling of “Another Earth”), and, unlike the others, she gets what he’s up to. He wants to show the evolution of the human eye, in all its complexity—its irreducible complexity, according to Intelligent Designers. Here’s the trouble: on a scale of 1 to 14, with 14 being the complex human eye, he needs a zero point: a creature without eyes but with some aspect of our eye signature. Karen begins researching an answer.

And no, thank God, she’s not mask-wearing free spirit. He doesn’t find the girl that easily.

He finds the girl this easily. He’s in a convenience store, a 7/11, buying smokes, etc., and the price comes to $11.11. And the date is 11/11. And he goes outside and the windows on the building across the street all look like 11s. Then the No. 11 bus pulls up. He gets on, as if in a trance, then gets off, in a daze. And he sees the mask-wearing girl’s eyes again. They’re on a billboard for Devonne of Paris. She’s a fashion model.

I never did get this “11” thing. Why 11? Because it looks like two “I”s? Or eyes? Because of “Spinal Tap”?

Anyway, we now get two stories: the love story with the free spirit, Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), and the work story with Karen. In the latter, he’s trying to disprove the Intelligent Design community; according to Sofi, he’s trying to disprove God. But she wants to turn him on to a life beyond science and data; to a world of coincidence and spirituality, and, yes, God. She talks about him being in a closed room, and there’s a door with light on the other side; and she urges him to walk through this door.

Sadly, I found all three characters annoying. Karen was too serious and severe, Sofi was too impetuous, Ian never seemed like a scientist to me. A true scientist isn’t interested in disproving X or proving Y. He’s interested in what the data shows. Sofi, as beautiful as she is, didn’t seem like a model, either. How come she never has to go anywhere? A fashion show? A fashion shoot? Of the three, only Karen fits her profession. But she hides, and not well, a secret love for Ian.

I’ll cut to the chase: On the day Ian and Sofi attempt to wed, Karen finds an applicable zero-point creature, so they all wind up in the lab together. Sofi is not a fan of the lab. “You torture worms?” she asks in her childlike French accent. During a clumsy moment, Ian gets a chemical solution in his eyes and can’t see for 24 hours; then he and Sofi get stuck in an old freight elevator at her apartment. It begins to creak. He forces open the doors to the hallway above and urges her up. She won’t. Him first, she says. Eventually he goes, and he’s in the act of pulling her up when the cable snaps and the elevator crashes down. He cradles her and she seems to sigh. But he can’t see properly. So he can’t see she was cut in half. That’s the end of Act I.

In Act II, it’s seven years later, he and Karen are now married, and they’ve published a book about their findings. (Stubbornly, God still lives). They have a baby.

At the hospital, an odd thing. They’re doing the eye signature thing on the baby when a different name, Paul Edgar Dairy, a sixty-ish black man, pops up. A glitch, they’re told. But later they get a call from Dr. Jane Simmons (Cara Seymour), who tells them their baby has early signs of autism. Could they come in for a test? Stricken again, they watch an odd test being conducted—the baby’s reactions to a series of images—and after some research Ian winds up in Boise, Idaho, and the Dairy farm, which is not a milking farm at all but a farm owned by the Dairys, whose patriarch, Paul Edgar, died a few years earlier. And look: there’s the dog whose photo in the lab made the baby smile; and look, there’s the wife whose photo made the baby eventually cry. Dr. Simmons isn’t testing for autism. She’s testing for reincarnation.

(She’s also causing undue stress for parents like Ian and Karen by using the autism angle. Enough to get her license revoked? The movie glosses this over. It goes off into other things. I know, only so much screentime, but it still bugged me.)

Anyway, Karen, Ian and their friend Kenny (Steven Yeun, a standout in a small role), do their own research testing eye signatures and get one from Sofi’s: in New Delhi, India, three months earlier. Off Ian goes. Now he’s out to prove, if not God, at least reincarnation. He’s out to prove the eternal nature of the soul.

Eyeless in Gaza

“I Origins” is certainly smarter than the average movie, but given the vastness of its subject it also feels reductive. The pretty love interest who died young is reincarnated as a pretty, shoeless girl in India (of course), rather than, say, an ugly girl in Alabama, or a firefly in Pennsylvania, or an eyeless worm in Gaza. Are people only reincarnated as people? Never other animals? Is there a hierarchy to reincarnation? Was Sofi’s a demotion? The movie wants to wake Ian and us up to possibilities, to the open door, but it feels like a closed room. It feels tied up in a bow.

The trailer didn’t help. Ninety percent of the plot is in the trailer. It takes us all the way from the love affair, through the death, to Ian seeing the girl in New Delhi. That’s about 15 minutes from the end. So there were few surprises for me. Shame on the people who make these things. They’re trying to get people to see it—I get that—but they’re ruining it for the people who do.

There is a moment I thought profound. Ian and Sofi are in the lab and Sofi is talking about spirituality and the soul, which Ian dismisses, so she points to his test subjects. She asks if these worms, which have no eyes, know anything about light. He says no. Even though light is all around them? Yes, even though that. So maybe, she says, human beings are like these worms. Maybe God is all around us but we don’t have the proper sense with which to see Him.

I liked that bit.

And I’m still looking forward to “I.” I’m curious to see what else Mike Cahill might do with this concept.

—May 27, 2014

© 2014 Erik Lundegaard