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Review/Interview: 'I Origins'

July 30, 2014 7:10 a.m.

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "I Origins" and speaks with director Mike Cahill.

Related Story: The Perfection Of 'I Origins'


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ANCHOR INTRO: The indie film I Origins opened on Comic-Con weekend and got overshadowed by the massive pop culture convention. But KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando says this is one film worth checking out.

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TAG: I Origins is currently playing at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas. and Arclight La Jolla

National Geographic had an iconic photo of a young Afghan woman with striking eyes on the cover of its magazine in 1987. Seventeen years later the photographer who never knew the woman’s name wanted to find out who she was. They had no DNA to match but they did have a picture of her eyes. Filmmaker Mike Cahill was working at the magazine at the time.

MIKE CAHILL: They had them in a perfect photograph and they brought along two iris biometric scientists to verify whether any of these candidates were in fact the young woman grown up because the eyes stay the same your whole life.

After going through a number candidates claiming to be her, they found the right woman.

MIKE CAHILL: And I thought wow this is a wonderful story from real life, what if we went searching for a person who really didn’t look the same because they were dead and they had the same eyes.

That’s how “I Origins” was born. The film follows Ian, a molecular biologist played by Michael Pitt, who ‘s fascinated with the eye.

CLIP The eye is the one sticking point that religious people use to discredit evolution they use it as proof of an intelligent designer, god, I’m looking to end the debate once and for all with use clear clean facts with data points of eye evolution… why you working so hard to disprove god… who proved he existed.

Cahill wants to consider if science and spirituality can sit at the same table rather than be at war. In Ian the film gives us someone who’s very rational and in need of evidence and data to believe in something. That’s why he begins an experiment to challenge the notion of intelligent design by showing how eyes evolved. Then he meets Sophie.

MIKE CAHILL: She sees in him this flirtation with the unknown and the unknowable and it’s almost like a string on his suit that she grabs onto and starts pulling and unraveling.

And unravel it does in this smart and elegantly crafted film. Cahill creates what he calls science fiction before the spectacle, before expensive visual effects when it was about ideas. Brit Marling plays a scientist who encourages Ian’s exploration.

CLIP The eyes and the brain are connected…what if the eyes really are the windows to the soul.

From the Bible to poets and scientists, the eyes have often been referred to as the windows to the soul. I Origins is driven by the question, what if that is true, how would you go about proving it? Ian’s burning passion to ask questions and seek answers fuels the film. Then Cahill endows it with the intrigue of a thriller but delivered with an art house restraint. There’s a certain science to making a film but in Cahill’s case it’s science in pursuit of something intangible.

MIKE CAHILL: There’s usually this emotion that’s existing right in my periphery of my vision, it’s like I can’t exactly grab it and me and the actors and all of my collaborators have all these nets and we’re on safari and trying to capture that weird, strange, beautiful beast so that we can put it up on stage for people to witness

That’s the beauty and appeal of Cahill’s film. It stimulates your senses as it challenges you intellectually. Unlike most mainstream filmmakers, Cahill refuses to tell you what to think or to spell out exactly what it is that he’s trying to say.

MIKE CAHILL: The whole thing is like we’re circling it and we don’t want to describe it too carefully because we can’t put a finger on it and we capture it and put it on stage and right as it goes out to sing and dance then we cut to black and the movie is over.

A perfect ending is rare but Cahill delivers that. He ends the movie at precisely the moment you have enough information to draw your own conclusions but not so much that only one interpretation is possible. It’s the moment at which the audience is still an active participator in the process rather than being told what to think. I’m not revealing too much when I say I Origins ends with a metaphorical door.

MIKE CAHILL: you have this door that’s only open a crack and just a crack and there’s this light on the other side and you want to go there but you are afraid to go there and at the end of the film they exit this darker space into this bright new world and it just felt sublime.

It’s a transcendent moment filled with beauty and potential. Cahill’s films, the other being “Another Earth,” are all about coming at a complex subject indirectly so you are not put off by the weight of the subject or quite sure which way the story will go. In that respect his films surprise and captivate you. I Origins is science fiction and indie filmmaking at its most engaging.

Beth Accomando, KPBS News.