In Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, the focal image that sculpts much of the picture is that of an eye. Following a series of contrasting blacks and whites, the image of the eye dictates the picture’s thematic intent: it’s a film about the act of sight and calls to question our observational capacities. Mike Cahill’s I Origins is also a film that opens on the image of an eye; or rather, it bludgeons the viewer with a rapidly shifting visual of irises. Yet the act of observation is less critical to Cahill, whose intent is a messy and unconvincing cohesion of science-fiction tropes and self-important faux spirituality that ultimately registers as inconsequential.
Cahill, part of a group of Georgetown graduates along with actress/screenwriter Brit Marling and director Zal Batmanglij (Sound of My Voice and The East, of which Marling also starred and co-wrote), conceals much of I Origins’ issues through a heavy emphasis on plotting and obscured character motivations. Dr. Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) and his assistant Karen (Brit Marling) scour through research and test data in hopes of producing an eye for non-seeing species. Gray’s motives are bluntly spoken: he’s a religious skeptic hoping to utilize science as a means of disproving the adage that the eye is the window to the soul. His logic speaks to the notion that if he can create an eye and understand its biological origins that he can put to rest any debate. It’s a naïve perspective that’s compounded by his flighty personality - a personality that falls for a girl with the prettiest eyes in the room. The picture eventually evolves into a discussion on the possibilities of reincarnation, whereby our eyes are the recycled components that persist from lifetime to lifetime.
For a film that resists spirituality with logic, it’s woefully illogical. I Origins is structured largely as a series of twists that ultimately numb the audience into complacency. The heavy plotting that Cahill deploys early in the picture is piled on so thickly that subsequent moments of revelation are muddled by excess. With the film’s characters all attempting to reconcile Big Questions on the troubles of juggling science with faith and spirituality, these questions are given secondary treatment to a narrative that looks to surprise audiences with its twists rather than look at these issues with some measure of gravitas. Cahill, an outspoken admirer of the films of Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieślowski, attempts to pay tribute to the director. But beyond some superficial narrative flourishes (like Kieślowski, Cahill finds humor in chance encounters), Cahill proves inept in connecting concepts of spirituality and grounded human existence. Whereas Kieślowski’s efforts unified a critical study of spirituality through intellectualism and humanism, Cahill’s presentation of the spiritual often times registers as overtly cynical. And when the film does give in to its spiritual connection, it’s through grand gestures of limited impact.