I sat down to talk with Mike Cahill and Michael Pitt of I Origins to get to the bottom of this sci-fi flick.
Warning: This piece features spoilers (which are also in the trailer) for the film I Origins.
I Origins is another low-key sci-fi entry (not quite “mumblecore,” definitely “arthouse” and hipster top-to-bottom) from Mike Cahill (director of the rather compelling Another Earth, which I liked a lot) starring Michael Pitt in the role of Ian Gray, a soulful dweeb hero (there’s really no other kind in these movies…) who doesn’t believe in souls. A brilliant evolutionary biologist, he and his lab-assistant/platonic work-wife (Britt Marling) are experts on eyeballs: Their big project? Inducing blind worms to develop eyes in order to knock down the so-called “Irreducible Complexity” of the human eye as point often cited by Creationists to argument in favor of an Intelligent Designer. He’s refreshingly direct about his aims, too: He (Pitt) wants to be the scientist who gets to toss the next big shovelful of dirt onto Religion’s coffin.
His other big project? An ongoing whirlwind romance with Astrid Berges-Frisby as “Sofi,” a — stop me if you’ve heard this one — quirky, wild, colorful, artistic, childlike-yet-sexually-adventurous, wide-eyed, eternally-optimistic, high on life human dynamo who yanks him out of his stuffy shell like a magical soul-masseur while asking seemingly nothing of substance in return and having next to no discernible past, goal, direction, want or barest semblance of an interior life of her own. Yeah, it’s one of those.
Sofi isn’t exactly a fan of Ian’s work (“This is what you do all day? Torture worms?”) nor of his philosophy (or lack thereof): “Why are you trying to disprove God??” she asks, accusingly. Not that she’s some kind of Holy Roller, mind you — a specific religious point of view would lessen the Millennial-appeal of her New Age whirligig persona. Instead she just sort of flits and twirls about while droning in a silky lilt about karma, destiny, etc; moping that Ian can’t also surrender to the bliss of not knowing (or caring) how things actually work. If Sofi (or the film) does have a point, it’s basically “Hey kids, cool news! Turns out there IS an Intelligent Designer predestining and ordering everything — but don’t worry! It’s not the boring judgmental churchy version your parents were into! Naw, it’s one of those cool trendy Eastern ones white hipsters can appropriate to mean whatever they want it too!”
Not that having an intellectually-bankrupt (or just stupid) theme/message/story makes a film bad — I gave Lucy (the movie built around the dumb “humans only use 10% of their brain” pop-myth) a mostly positive review for being fun and (ironically) refreshingly optimistic and progressive, after all. But even if you strip out what amounts to Hipster Orientalist Creationism, I Origins would still be insufferably “twee” and pretentious about “big idea” mystery the inevitable answer to which is A.) trite and B.) immediately obvious.
Anyway, Sofi dies in a freak accident halfway into the movie. That’s probably supposed to be a spoiler, but it’s in the trailer so… whatever. A few years later, Ian and Marling’s character are married with child when they discover that someone has worked out a way to use their revolutionary eye-mapping research to find evidence of identical iris-patterns as part of a bid to document proof of reincarnation — and, wouldn’t you know it? — some unknown person in India may have just tested positive for Sofi Reborn. Gee, I wonder if Ian will find “closure” in the form of accepting that his science really is powerless next to… um… whatever it was his dead girlfriend vaguely believed in?
So… yeah, not a fan of the movie. But when offered the chance to sit and interview Cahill and Pitt about it, I sort-of jumped at the chance: It’s pretty rare that I find myself loathing a movie so completely that I actually want to dig further into it and get a chance to talk to its makers. Hell — maybe they’ll convince me that I’m wrong? (Spoiler warning: they did not convince me that I was wrong — though credit where due, Cahill was a really good sport when I pretended my first question was “What did the ending mean in Another Earth?”)
NOTE: Interview text transcribed from audio recording, edited for clarity, context and to remove run-on/off-topic digressions.
MOVIEBOB: Do you consider [Another Earth and I Origins] to be science-fiction films?
MIKE CAHILL: Yes. (beat) 100%. In the truest form. Speculative fiction. Using current technology to tell stories about humanity.
MOVIEBOB: Archie Panjabi’s character asks [Pitt’s character] — paraphrasing the Dalai Llama (note: In the interview, I misattributed the quote to Gandhi. Cahill, thankfully, corrected my mistake) — “What would you do if something disproved your scientific beliefs?” As the author of this dialogue, what do you imagine her response would be if his response was: “Science doesn’t have beliefs. It has theories, facts, conjectures, formulas…?”
MIKE CAHILL: Well, I mean, it’s kind of a shorthand. It’s… the scientific method, is… testing things. Things that can be tested and re-tested to get the same result. So to say you believe in science — that word “science” is just short for the scientific method, really.
MOVIEBOB: The story of the film is of a scientist trying to disprove the irreducible complexity argument cited by Creationists. In the film he appears to be proven incorrect or at least seems proven incorrect in his conjectures about such. Is this an anti-Atheism film?
MIKE CAHILL: (appears surprised by the question, long pause — about 7 seconds) …No.
MIKE CAHILL: This is… not an anti-Atheist film. (slaps table) This is a… (pause) …pro agnostic film.
MOVIEBOB: Given that this is a science-fiction film that has a scientist coming up against a spiritual argument and being sort of “countered,” a bit, on it…
MIKE CAHILL: Ah! Now I see where you’re getting at.
Note: The majority of my questions have been directed to both men, Michael Pitt was largely silent at this point. He was more talkative beforehand, pointing out my video-game themed T-shirt and claiming that they were working on an I Origins game — I think he was kidding.
MOVIEBOB: …so, are you looking forward to a point where the film is “slapped around” a bit by Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye?
Both men laughing
MIKE CAHILL: If they watch it that’d be very cool — I like both guys very much. They’re popularizers of science. What they do is important.
We briefly slip off-topic to mutually-gush about how great Cosmos was.
MOVIEBOB: This… could possibly sound incendiary, but I mean it in the spirit of discussion: Are you familiar with a trope in criticism of fiction called “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl?”
MIKE CAHILL: Yes.
MOVIEBOB: What would your response be to someone who —
MIKE CAHILL: Characterizes Astrid’s character…?
MOVIEBOB: As perhaps a “quintessential” MPDG, yeah.
MIKE CAHILL: Watch the movie again. She actually has a great deal of wisdom. She…
MICHAEL PITT: I’m sorry, what… what is that?
MOVIEBOB: It was coined by Nathan Rabin… (short version: I end up reading the TV Tropes definition of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl to Mason Verger. My job is strange.)
MICHAEL PITT: I think what’s interesting about this movie — what I love about Mike Cahill’s writing is that… he may be playing with the idea of a character who might be like that on paper. But when you watch… I think, mechanically, actually the wisest things that are said — the most profound things — are said by this character. And I would say the scene the viewer should pay attention to is the scene with the worms. She uses his work in the laboratory… maybe [Mike Cahill] can explain it better… as an analogy to her point of view.
MIKE CAHILL: Right, yeah. Exactly.
MICHAEL PITT: What she’s talking about is really amazing stuff. In society… That happens, y’know, in society. Intelligence is misguided by people who use big words — people who are formally educated. And the truth is, what’s real… that doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence. It can… mask ignorance.
Note: At this point, Cahill asks if I had read Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, a satirical novella from 1884. I had not. He recommends it.
MIKE CAHILL: So… yeah, I think Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope is bullshit.
MOVIEBOB: Did you (Pitt) research your character’s field of study?
MICHAEL PITT: No, I don’t research much. (laugh, he is kidding) No, yeah. I’d have liked to research even more. I’m super fascinated by this stuff.
As it turns out, Pitt studied in a Johns Hopkins facility where Cahill’s brother is a scientist to prepare for the part. Around this point, the publicist gives us the wrap-it-up signal.
MOVIEBOB: (to Pitt) I apologize in advance but my [family member] will kill me if I don’t ask you this…
MICHAEL PITT: Okay?
MOVIEBOB: Will you be back for another season on Hannibal?
MICHAEL PITT: (Laughing — I think he thought I was going to ask about something else?) …why would you apologize for asking that?
MOVIEBOB: Well, it’s sometimes considered a faux-pas to ask about an unrelated project and…
MIKE CAHILL: Shouldn’t you should be apologizing to me, then? (Laughs)
MICHAEL PITT: I’d love to, I’d love to. We’re trying to work it out.