'Seeing Is Believing: Science, Spirituality and Silliness in "I Origins"', by Mel Campbell

A still from I Origins.

Mike Cahill’s loopy sci-fi fantasy I Origins plays with the double function of the human eye: at once our primary organ of judgment, with which we verify our experiences, and the ‘window to the soul’, symbol of our essential selves. We can study their structure, Cahill suggests, but holding someone’s gaze can also forge a mystic connection that evades logical explanations.

As a graduate student, molecular biologist Ian (Michael Pitt) is researching the evolutionary development of the human eye, along with his housemate Kenny (Steven Yeun). Initially dismissive of his new lab partner Karen (Brit Marling, reunited with Cahill after 2011’s Another Earth), Ian comes to admire her unexpected resourcefulness and tenacity.

Ian’s work is also his hobby; he photographs the irises of everyone he meets. At a Halloween party (Ian is the kind of guy who wears his lab coat as a costume), he photographs and briefly fucks an attractive masked woman. Afterwards, he fixates on her unusual irises and tracks her down. She is Sofi (Astrid Bregès-Frisbey), a free-spirited young model who believes she has otherworldly powers of perception.

I Origins deploys hard science in a wide-eyed way that comes across as deeply silly.

Ian and Sofi quickly succumb to an all-consuming, extremely irritating infatuation. Convinced they are soulmates, they decide to marry… but all too soon, tragic circumstances tear them apart. Years later, now a prominent scientist married to Karen, Ian discovers – through a global iris recognition database conveniently run by Kenny – that someone whose iris patterns match Sofi’s is living in India. Is Sofi making her way back to Ian?

What struck me most about I Origins was that it deploys hard science in a wide-eyed way that comes across as deeply silly; a nutty post-credits sequence, in particular, plays like indie cinema’s attempt to muscle in on Marvel Studios’ territory. In its obsessive, talismanic deployment of visual motifs, its air of existential mystery, its unconvincing ending and even its tepid critical reception, I Origins recalls the films of M Night Shyamalan. And, much as Shyamalan has continued to embrace the otherworldly amid much scoffing and sneering, I was charmed by Cahill’s willingness to be silly despite his film’s apparent awareness of its own silliness.

Love Finds A Way

In Jurassic Park, chaos theorist Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) reacts incredulously to park geneticist Henry Wu’s (BD Wong) claim that genetically engineering the dinosaur population through embryonic gender selection will contain them. “Life finds a way,” Malcolm says.

Both fatalistic and gleefully open to the unexpected, Malcolm charts an intriguing third way between the ‘hard’ science espoused by Wu—as well as palaeontologists Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern)—and the cavalier utopianism of the park’s owner, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough).

Similarly, I Origins sets up a tension between eyes as scrutinising organs and symbols of souls, wading into the grey area between belief and science. Both are means by which we come by our knowledge of the world; but while belief is an innate certainty that something is true, science postulates hypotheses that can be supported or disproved through methodical testing of evidence. In science, the act of looking is about scrutiny and proof; belief’s gaze is more serene and ambivalent.

Ironically, scientists can believe in their method just as dogmatically as any religion. And conspiracy theorists use evidentiary tropes retrospectively, to bolster ideas they already believe to be the ‘truth’. I Origins challenges its audiences, as it does its characters, to emerge from their intellectual corners: to approach its woo-woo narrative with innocence rather than suspicion.

In the film’s first half, Ian and Sofi stick firmly to their corners. Ian yearns to debunk religious theories of intelligent design, but Sofi is uneasy about the literal can of worms Ian is opening by manipulating the genes of a sightless creature. She points out that his scientific belief in “proof” doesn’t preclude the existence of a higher power. After all, the blind worms can’t perceive light, yet we know it exists. To them, we might be God.

The prototypical god-playing scientist was Victor Frankenstein, who, in Mary Shelley’s novel, was ‘The Modern Prometheus’. In the 2012 film Prometheus, archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) represents both Christian faith and scientific arrogance, while her employer, billionaire industrialist Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), has the same grasping ambition as the Prometheus of Greek myth, punished for daring to steal the technology of fire from the gods.

In science, the act of looking is about scrutiny and proof; belief’s gaze is more serene and ambivalent.

But while Jurassic Park and other science fiction films show that life does indeed ‘find a way’ to humble scientific hubris, I Origins proposes that becoming receptive to ideas that challenge your own is like falling in love. Cahill is suggesting that people can forge emotional connections—symbolised here by gazing into the eyes of the beloved—whose power transcends the rational. By the end of the film, Ian hasn’t abandoned his commitment to scientific evidence; but his affair with Sofi has left him open to the possibility of belief independent of reason.

Shyamalan’s The Happening (2008) suggests that life has ‘found a way’ to punish humankind for its arrogant exploitation of the planet: a neurotoxin produced by vegetation, which sparks an epidemic of violent, senseless suicides. Roundly mocked on its release—notably for the earnest performance of Mark Wahlberg, who later admitted he regretted taking the role—it dares its audience to laugh at its B-movie goofiness.

But The Happening also suggests that love flourishes under the threat of imminent death. High-school science teacher Elliot Moore (Wahlberg) and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) are estranged at the beginning of the film, but at its climax they decide to voluntarily expose themselves to the neurotoxin in order to spend their last moments together.

Such sacrifice is a familiar trope in the disaster movies to which Shyamalan is paying homage. Yet it’s emblematic of The Happening’s sly, frustrating yet somehow beguiling ambiguity that just as Elliot and Alma embrace, the entire crisis abates. We’re never sure whether this timing was coincidental, or whether the trees somehow spared them because they chose to sacrifice themselves, humbled by love rather than arrogantly assuming they deserve to survive.

On the other hand, Wally Pfister’s 2014 film Transcendence dramatises another kind of disastrous scientific hubris using a metaphor of love gone sour. An absurdly named artificial intelligence researcher, Will Caster (Johnny Depp), is about to precipitate a technological singularity when anti-AI terrorists shoot and fatally irradiate him. Desperate to save the man she loves, Will’s wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) helps him upload his memories to his computer and connects it to the internet.

When Will’s consciousness survives, his vastly augmented intelligence invents nanoparticles that enable him to exist everywhere. The film becomes a sinister romantic thriller as Evelyn finds herself increasingly constrained by her omnipresent digital husband, although Will claims he’s merely realising Evelyn’s own ambition to save human lives and conserve the environment. Their love has indeed found a way… but is it a way Evelyn wants?

“Discovery is a violent, penetrative act,” Ian Malcolm says. “What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world.”

The Searching Gaze

The main characters in I Origins are all seeking something existential. But many of the film’s loopier moments lean heavily on otherworldly serendipity of the sort that’s troubled critics of Shyamalan’s work. The chain of events that leads Ian to Sofi is so uncannily coincidental – and so entwined with the motif of the eye – as to seem risible. Another, equally uncanny and eye-related, chain of events separates them.

One possible explanation, as Sofi suggests, is that these ‘coincidences’ are guided by a higher power. “Why are you working so hard to disprove God?” Sofi asks. Later, when Ian visits India, community worker Priya Varma (Archie Panjabi) reverses the question: if the scientific method incontrovertibly proved God’s existence, would Ian then believe?

Shyamalan’s 2002 sci-fi thriller Signs, ostensibly about an alien invasion, is a parable of a post-traumatic crisis of faith. After his wife is killed in a gruesome car crash caused by a neighbour (played by Shyamalan – cue jokes about metanarratives), Episcopalian priest Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) has abandoned his ministry. He becomes obsessed with strange goings-on—beginning with crop circles in his fields—but also broods on the senselessness of his wife’s death.

Her enigmatic last words and the seemingly unrelated actions of his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) and daughter Bo (Abigail Breslin) fit together at the film’s climax like a puzzle. As James Newton Howard’s soundtrack paints a mood of sublime revelation, Graham suddenly understands how to fend off the alien attack, and is reassured that God has a purpose for everything.

The human iris takes its name from the Greek rainbow goddess; its range of colours and patterns is truly magnificent. So, too, is its translucence, which can make a person’s eye colour appear to vary expressively in different lights. As Ian and Karen’s research aims to demonstrate, these are merely the result of natural variation in gene expression; but one might easily fancy the iris the symbol of some otherworldly power.

Perhaps this is why the ancient Egyptians gave their funerary statues painstakingly crafted and startlingly lifelike irises of inlaid crystal. It’s also why German hypnotist Franz Mesmer proposed that staring into another person’s eyes transferred an esoteric natural energy he called ‘animal magnetism’. And it’s also why so many participants in Marina Abramovic’s performance work The Artist Is Present were moved to tears by the experience of holding her gaze.

A sense of wonder still pervades our thinking about eyes.

In I Origins, Cahill repeatedly lingers on extreme close-ups of eyes. Like Ian, audiences are invited to admire their gorgeous detail; but the mood Cahill creates is of the sublime. Eyes, here, aren’t soothingly beautiful. Instead, they allow us to contemplate the dizzying infinity of existence, and the endless possibilities that may exist if we are willing to entertain them.

After seeing the film, I found myself examining other people’s eyes much more closely. As the 2002 sci-fi thriller Minority Report dramatises, this anatomical feature can be deployed deterministically, and even oppressively, as an identification device. Indeed, Ian’s discovery of Sofi’s iris patterns in India pivots on a real-life project to assign unique biometric identities to all Indian citizens.

Yet a sense of wonder still pervades our thinking about eyes. Despite the sillier moments of I Origins, it captures something of this capability for awe. Whether you approach the film skeptically, as a critic wanting proof, or credulously, as a viewer seeking spiritual catharsis, I Origins explores the ambiguity of perception on a recognisably human scale.

Mel Campbell is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist, cultural critic, and author of the book Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit.