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I Origins

July 25, 2014
I Origins

It should come as no surprise that I’m a pretty staunch believer in evolution. That said, I also recognize the importance of faith for many people, and I know that the actual process of science is not exactly a rigorous, clockwork machine grinding ever forward. There’s a dialogue to be had between the two sides, to come to an understanding of how science really works to incorporate new information and turn mysteries into understanding.

To look at I Origins, it seems that writer/director Mike Cahill understands the need for this dialogue. He also shows a clear respect for science, and a desire to escape from movie clichĂ©s about scientists. But I’m not really sure he quite gets what science is, in the end. The first half is excellent as it brings a scientific project into conjunction with more subjective aspects of the human experience, but then it gives way to an ambivalent second half marked by a wishy-washy “we just don’t know” sentimentality.

The story hinges on the evolution of the human eye, long held up by ignorant creationists as supposed evidence of “irreducible complexity”. In fact, as illustrated most recently in Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos reboot, there are stages of eye development all the way from a patch of light-sensitive cells to a modern human eye, and there are species that provide examples of each one.

Cahill at least knows this. He tells a story about a scientist, Ian Gray (Michael Pitt), who wants to go further and find specific mutations that could bridge the gaps from each stage to the next. He shows his new lab assistant, Karen (Brit Marling, who co-wrote Cahill’s previous film, Another Earth), how he’s inducing color vision in normally color-blind lab mice. Karen runs with it, conjecturing another step he hadn’t accounted for: a completely sightless organism may have a dormant gene coding for the most rudimentary light-sensitivity, and a mutation might be able to activate that ability.

At the same time, Ian is falling for Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), a young woman with strikingly-colored eyes. As committed to science and rationality as Ian is, Sofi is sure that there’s something more. She speaks of their knowing each other in past lives; he, smitten, modifies this into some more sciency-sounding nonsense about their atoms. The things we do for love.

Seven years after both of these storylines come to a nearly-simultaneous climax, iris-scanning has become a prominent form of biometric identification. When Ian’s first son is born and his irides are scanned, something funny happens: a false-positive match returns a deceased black man from Idaho. Ian stumbles into a closely-guarded mystery, which seems to indicate some kind of connection between people with such matching iris patterns.

And this is where things really go off the rails: Cahill treats this discovery like it might point to some mysterious force beyond the realm of science. In fact, the researchers Ian meets are already on exactly the right track, building up data and seeking an explanation. Even in the real world there are certainly phenomena we do not yet understand, but that doesn’t mean they’re beyond science. Science is not about what is true; it’s about how we come to know that things are true.

Sofi delivers the supposed killer analogy: a worm that previously sensed only touches and smells has mutated to sense light, so maybe people of faith have mutated to sense some other real phenomena beyond our current understanding. But this doesn’t really mean anything. If it’s true, and there is some sort of metempsychosis, then we should be able to explore and eventually explain it. We could never detect magnetic fields directly, the way migratory birds can, but that hardly means magnetism is beyond the realm of science. In principle, blind worm-scientists could eventually describe properties of light in terms of how it affects the things they can sense more directly. That Ian doesn’t immediately give this response shows either how bad of a scientist he is, or how badly Cahill misunderstands science itself.

But Cahill is not a bad director, and I Origins is not altogether a bad movie. Marling is as great as ever, albeit with less to do than in Another Earth. Cahill brings the same well-produced, low-budget style we saw in that film, though, with a few more impressive tricks this time around. And he again does well in his attempts to explore human emotion. But it seems the debate between science and faith seems to be a bit beyond his depth.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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