Windows, by Josh Long
In 2011, writer/director Mike Cahill brought us Another Earth, a sci-fi/drama exploring the idea of a parallel planet with the same geography, people, and history as ours. It deals with not only the scientific questions and ramifications that would arise, but also the philosophical implications. Similarly, Cahill’s new film, I Origins, explores the philosophical side of scientific discovery. Yet however dedicated the film is to sci-fi, it remains deeply rooted in the drama of its story – this is not a film merely about grandiose ideas; it is a personal story of what these ideas mean to relatable, broken people.
The story covers a lot of ground (over ten years passes in the course of the film) so I will do my best to condense. Also, it seems difficult to discuss the main plot points without some level of spoilers, so consider yourself warned. Michael Pitt plays Ian Gray, a molecular biologist whose main focus of study is the eye. Much of his research is focused on the evolutionary origin of the eye. He explains in the film that the evolution of the eye is a major argument point for proponents of “intelligent design,” as there is currently no solid theory for how non-seeing organisms could evolve eyes. He is drawn to this study in part to discredit that argument.
He meets and falls in love with Sofi, a wild-eyed dreamer whose belief in the “spirit world” directly contrasts Gray’s purely scientific worldview. On the same day that the two decide to marry, Gray’s lab assistant Karen (Brit Marling) discovers a non-seeing worm with the gene required for sight – the missing link they’ve been searching for. Tragically, that same evening, Sofi is killed in a terrible accident. Years pass, and Gray and Karen’s research has proven the theory of an evolved eye. In the meantime, the two have been married. When their first child is born, his eyes are scanned as part of a biometric identification system. Strangely, the child’s retinal scan, which should be unique, matches that of a recently deceased man. This unexplainable connection forces the Grays to apply their empirical minds to decidedly metaphysical theories. Sofi’s world and ideas come back to Ian, and he is forced to reevaluate a universe he thought he understood.
Cahill is clearly interested in the idea of “other selves.” This film deals with reincarnation (as does another film Cahill is purported to have in development), and Another Earth explores our doubles on an identical planet. His studied interest leads to a mature discussion of identity, but also on a larger scale, the conflict of science versus the unexplained. Cahill unquestionably believes there is more to reality than what we can prove scientifically, but he is sure to pay the proper dues to scientific theory. The existence of the supernatural is no slam-dunk theory, and he doesn’t treat it as such. Debates between Ian and Sofi are never one-sided.
One thing that bolsters these competing ideologies is a deep focus on the people who present them. We identify so well with these characters that we take them seriously, even if we come into the theatre with a predilection one way or the other. Admittedly, we could stand to know more about where they come from; their background exposition is sparse. Still, they do seem fully formed and identifiable. In Sofi’s case especially, the mystery of her past supports what she represents ideologically. The crisis our lead character Ian must face is both deep and personal. On the heels of “disproving God,” he makes a discovery that pushes him back towards belief in the unexplained. The way this crisis both emotionally and practically attaches to his relationship with Sofi makes it more important, and more painful.
From a production standpoint, I Origins is more polished than Another Earth. It’s unclear whether that’s a creative decision or just the result of an indie filmmaker who suddenly has access to more resources. Either way, it works. Dialogue is also cleaner this time around, although there are still some overly explain-y moments. Some will find it too on the nose, and there are admittedly a few moments where the script moves forwards too easily (the flight to Boise in particular seemed like jumping the gun to me). On the plus side, the sci-fi is more developed in this film. It feels so naturally integrated that it’s easy to forget the “fiction” part. Also, whereas Earth II existed more as a symbol and a plot device, the sci-fi elements of I Origins are indispensable parts of the story.
Mike Cahill’s debut film dipped its toes into the water of philosophical science fiction, and his sophomore effort is a more mature, deeper work, and well executed. He wants to touch his audience’s hearts and get them to think with this work, and I’d say he succeeds at both.