Review by Daniel Rester
I Origins begins with an offbeat image and a voice-over explaining that we are going to be told a strange story connected to the lead character. It’s a pretty cliché but effective hook for the beginning of a sci-fi film, but such a thing can be swallowed easily as long as what follows pays off. Unfortunately, writer-director Mike Cahill’s Origins only slightly delivers on its promise in a satisfying way.
The film follows Dr. Ian Gray (Michael Pitt), a molecular biologist who studies the evolution of the eye. His goal is to make a breakthrough that will disprove certain spiritual beliefs in regards to the creation of human beings. With the help of his new lab partner, Karen (Brit Marling), and his friend, Kenny (Steven Yeun, of The Walking Dead fame), Gray uses tests on eyes and evolution in order to prove his theories. Gray’s research and beliefs are put to the test when he falls in love with Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), a mysterious and beautiful model who favors spirituality over science.
Cahill’s film is interesting but never quite as compelling or effective as it wants to be. The filmmaking style here is fine, with smooth camera movements and clean cuts in the editing (Cahill also edited the picture). The music by Will Bates and Phil Mossman provides a lot to the feel of the film as well; the music was often graceful but also gave me chills. Markus Forderer’s cinematography is excellent, too, with the intimate moments between Gray and Sofi standing out in particular. These scenes often contained slight movements and low lighting that really enhanced the sensual moods without ever making them mushy.
The big issue here lies in Cahill’s writing. I certainly admire Cahill for taking on the idea of science versus faith on a personal level, tackling sci-fi in an emotional and thought-provoking way instead of falling back on the modern-day lust for sci-fi explosions and alien attacks. The story spine is clear, with Cahill pointing out that sometimes faith can be more powerful than scientific evidence — even if that means a conflict in character and lack of substantial “proof.” The main ideas of playing God and accepting other possibilities, and Cahill’s exploration of this in regards to eyeballs, are captivating. But, sadly, everything surrounding these ideas falls apart.
Cahill’s script could have definitely used some tightening and polishing. The movie presents many different things, but a lot of them are just lost in a jumble. The heavy voice-overs essentially disappear after the beginning, a subplot about the number 11 is thrown to the side by the end, and the scientific research and “spirit sense” aspects are never given as much complexity as one may like.
The third act also relies on increasingly dramatic dialogue that comes across as more laughable than poignant. It also doesn’t help that the supporting characters are mostly boring (with Marling and Yeun’s talents wasted) because we never learn much about them. My biggest gripe, however, is that the story points in the second and third acts mostly feel contrived in order for Cahill to make his main points. What’s worse is that the outcome of everything is obvious, yet Cahill spends a lot of time getting to that point. At least the outcome itself is pretty satisfying — as it adds on some much-needed emotional weight in the form of a young female character.
The acting on a whole is fine but nothing to burst into huge praise over. Pitt is always interesting to watch, though he only commands our attention some of the time with this role. Berges-Frisbey is the standout and transcends the material with her raw emotional approach; there is a great amount of pain and beauty in her looks. Everyone else does okay, but they don’t get any “big moments” or enough character development in order to truly make an impact.
While Cahill’s movie has intelligent and personal moments, some occasionally strong acting, and a professional look and feel, the film never quite gels entirely. People who are diehard fans of science versus faith stories may find more to enjoy here, but I didn’t find much to connect with. Still, I admire some of Cahill’s bold choices here.
Score: 2 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: C+).
MPAA Rating: R (for some sexuality/nudity and language).
Runtime: 1 hours and 53 minutes.
U.S. Release Date: July 18th, 2014 (limited).