“Every person living on this planet has their own unique pair of eyes,” says Ian Gray, father, husband, scientist: he is bound by what he can observe, measure, categorise, but equally true is that every person on the planet has their own set of experiences, their own unique vision and perspective, and so it is possible for two people to look upon the same thing and yet see something quite different. So it is with the latest film from Mike Cahill, a wide eyed gaze at the contrariness of love and the conflict between faith and science.
Eight years previously Ian was a PhD student engaged in an experimental study of colour blind mice who has so far enjoyed thirty two failures in his experiments. “Turning over rocks and finding nothing is progress” he assures his new research assistant, Karen, before warning her that the work is “very boring, very repetitive,” and will mostly consist of taking notes.
Fascinated by vision, Ian explores the pathway of how the sense came to be, how organisms have adapted both with and without sight, hoping that by recreating one of the missing evolutionary steps in the lab he can close that gap in understanding and further solidify the theory of natural selection, under constant attack under the guise of “intelligent design” from those whose faith is threatened by that key scientific principle.
When Karen surprises him by asking the smart questions he didn’t expect from a grad student the thesis undergoes its own transformation: he has been looking at steps one to twelve in the process, but she asks him what an organism does if it’s on step zero, taking the experiment right back to the most basic origin of vision.
Yet the man of science is distracted by the mysterious masked girl he met at a party; watching the moon, she told him stories and he asked if he could photograph her eyes. They are immediately drawn to the uniqueness and drive of each other, but she runs out before he gets her name or even glimpses her face. All he has are the images he took of her eyes, but a series of coincidences leads him to a billboard showing him those same eyes of the girl with heterochromia.
I Origins is the latest collaboration between Cahill and Brit Marling; unlike Another Earth the script is solely Cahill’s, though in common with that film it is ambiguous, thoughtful, open ended and unafraid to question the unknown. As Karen, Marling is more peripheral than her challenging roles in Sound Of My Voice and The Eastbut is no less complex, the focus instead on Hannibal‘s Michael Pitt as Ian and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides‘ Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey as the elusive Sofi, the woman who challenges him even as she completes him, the scientist in love with the free spirit, he hard data, she soft intimate abstractions.
When she tells him she feels as though they are connected from past lives, he dismisses her: “I don’t believe in that. I’m a scientist.” When he explains his work she asks “Why are you looking to disprove god?” he counters by asking who proved god existed in the first place. Told beautifully through light and reflection and the intimacy of unbroken attention, the gaze of a friend, a lover, even a stranger, Sofi leads him to consider whether there can be a mutation for spirituality.
By couching the early parts of the film in strict adherence to scientific process the film hopes the greater leaps, allegedly supported by evidence, will be accepted by an audience already drawn in, but it is Ian’s resistance which is more important, and more truthful. Following the evidence wherever it leads, even if it seems to be a false positive, Karen remains objective: “That is an error which is worth looking at.”
Explicitly voiced by the community health worker Ian meets in India, Priya Varma (Archie Panjabi), the question of our time “What would you do if something spiritual disproved your scientific beliefs?” is the central theme of the film, and against rationality, that is actually what Ian is hoping for, and it’s a very human thing for him to do.