Originally published at Let There Be Movies.
Ian looks across the diner booth at Sofi, her unique fusion of blue and hazel eyes staring back into his. “The eye is the one sticking point that religious people use to discredit evolution,” he tells her. “They use it as proof of a… intelligent designer… I’m looking to end the debate once and for all with clear, clean facts. Data points of every stage of eye evolution.”
“Why are you working so hard to disprove God,” Sofi asks him.
“Who proved that God was there in the first place?” Ian playfully retorts.
Such is I Origins, a potentially interesting cinematic treatment on the existence of God that ultimately buckles amid weak, philosophical dialogue and some awful, metaphysical conclusions.
The movie opens with an epilogue; molecular biologist Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) is looking back on the last eight years of his life and narrating his story. “Every living person on this planet has their own unique pair of eyes, each their own universe,” he tells us. As his voice-over continues we see him sitting in front of a computer typing in a URL: digitalsoulbank.com. This is a relevant detail that will be revealed at the end of the film (and will be mentioned at the end of this review). For now we see that he is experimenting on blind mice to enable them to see. Particularly, he is looking for an “origin” species for the development of the eye, i.e. a blind organism that possesses the PAX6 gene, the supposed sine qua non for eye development. Why is this detail important? Because Ian and Karen (Brit Marling), his eager lab assistant, finds a species of worm that possesses PAX6. This means that a blind organism possesses the necessary ingredient, if I may, for the development of the eye.
So evolution has been vindicated against its detractors and the God-belief can finally die its thousandth death, right? Not exactly. Ian falls in love with Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) only to watch her die in his arms from a horrific elevator accident. Through a series of serendipitous events, Ian discovers that a girl in India possesses his dead girlfriend’s unique iris patterns. This presents a problem for his worldview because, maybe this match in iris patterns shows that randomness is not behind the universe after all. So how should Ian perceive this supposed defeater to his worldview?
First, the review.
Director Mike Cahill (Another Earth) has done a heck of a lot with a low budget. Despite the absence of special effects or elaborate set pieces (for example), the movie never possesses a lo-fi, indie aesthetic. I want to tip my hat to Cahill as this particular kind of artistry takes some serious creative talent. The actors, Pitt, Marling, Berges-Frisbey, even Steven Yeung (as Kenny) have great chemistry with each other. There are moments of banter and joking in some of the less significant scenes that seem so real and genuinely funny, again, not so easy to pull off. Cahill even scores with some rare but very clever and beautiful tracking shots as well as aerial views of the New York City skyline. In other words, the production elements are working together very well in this film. Everyone, up to this point, should be commended for a job well done.
Ian meets Sofi at a party. Despite her Hindu beliefs and his atheistic materialism they have a nice, playful chemistry and quickly become consumed with each other; so they do what most secular people, who believe love is purely eros, do: they make plans to get married. As it predictably happens, their worldviews collide. Sofi believes in both the soul and reincarnation (as is commensurate with an eastern worldview) while Ian believes only in what he calls “data”; that is, he believes in evolution and materialism (the view that all that essentially exists is matter).
Interestingly, Ian possesses a modicum of intellectual honesty as he corrects Karen’s mistaken assertion that evolution is a “fact”. “It’s an assumption, not a fact,” he says. Yet he doesn’t take the same care when considering the arguments for the existence of God. Instead he makes silly statements like, “There is no proof that there is some magical spirit that’s invisible, living above us, right on top of us.” I sometimes hear this comment (or its equivalent) thrown around as if it has some kind of intellectual heft to it. There are so many problems with it though. First, it’s a category error to suggest that an immaterial spirit is spatial and therefore has a location like “above us” or “right on top of us.” That’s just a silly thing to say. Second, there are plenty of proofs for the existence of God. I’ll name three: the teleological argument, the ontological argument, and the cosmological argument. All three comport with what we find in nature; that is, the evidence from nature supports these philosophical proofs. So Ian, like many, has not taken the time to investigate other views that are inconsistent with his own.
I don’t really have a problem with that. Many educated folk only take the time to specialize in their particular fields. Unfortunately, as a consequence, scientists (like Ian) make silly philosophical blunders, what physicist George Ellis describes as the unexamined foundations of the science they actually do; and, what’s worse, they neither realize it nor are they open to alternative possibilities. Call it an intellectual blind spot. As I watched Ian’s blind spot play out I became excited at the answers that would await him on his journey to discover the soul. The problem is the answer provided in the movie is an eastern one arguing for past lives and doorways to another “side” where an ambiguous “light” can be experienced… whatever that means.
This is where I Origins largely fails, particularly in two ways. First, the movie’s dichotomy between science and eastern philosophy is entirely misleading. Perhaps there is a metaphysical “other side” that entails rationality and logic rather than eschewing it. Perhaps we don’t have to choose between being rational and following science and being nonrational and religious. Perhaps the spiritual dimension demands our focused minds to be clear in our thinking and follow the evidence rather than emptying our minds and accepting logical contradiction. Unfortunately, for Hollywood, if we were to pursue answers for the evidence of the metaphysical without getting rid of rationality, we would become Christians instead of Hindus. Maybe that’s just too cookie-cutter, too uncool to fathom. Nevertheless, this is exactly one of the superior aspects of Christianity over other religions. The same God who enjoined His people to come reason with Him in Isaiah 1:18 is the same One who calls His people to love Him with all of their minds in Mark 12:30, to be adults in their thinking in 1 Corinthians 14:20, and to renew their minds in Romans 12:2. This is so Christians can “examine everything carefully and hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21), so they can avoid being held captive by “empty deception” (Colossians 2:8) and “opposing arguments of what is falsely called ‘knowledge’” (1 Timothy 6:20). In other words, in order to follow Jesus Christ, Christians must be rational, clear thinkers, yet somehow Christianity was not considered as a possible answer to the existence of the soul? Why?
Second, eastern philosophy/religion, as an answer to the existence of the soul, is problematic in too many ways to discuss here. One of the main problems with the eastern worldview is that their particular religious documents are written in such a manner that attesting it historically is inapplicable. In other words, the truth claims it makes cannot be tied to historical events, and therefore cannot be subjected to falsification. Christianity on the other hand stands or falls on the historical reliability of Christ, in history, dying and resurrecting. There are evidences for this, which I won’t go into; the point is, as Paul says, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless” (1 Corinthians 15:17). Therefore, Christianity can be falsified whereas other faiths, like Hinduism, cannot. And if Hinduism cannot be falsified then why believe its claims entailing the soul? The answer is: You shouldn’t.
The last third of the film turns into a Dan Brown novel where Ian travels to India to find Sofi’s exact iris match to see if this young girl retains the same memories as Sofi did. When he discovers that she does, his worldview shatters and he becomes a believer in the eastern worldview; at least, that’s what is implied because, as was mentioned in the beginning of this post, he is signing onto digitalsoulbank.com (presumably a place where people can discover their previous iris matches, i.e. their past lives). But why should the fact that there are iris matches disprove Ian’s worldview in the first place? Why can’t matching iris patterns be a product of the repeated rearrangement of matter in the universe, as Ian believes? This question is not dealt with at all. Nor is the question of why Ian should believe that, because he manipulated worms with the PAX6 gene then somehow random mutation is the cause for the human eye. Ironically, he designed the mutation to occur, but then wants to say that his experiment is proof that the eye randomly mutated. Seriously?
For artistic creativity and casting choice, I Origins gets an A. For its poor metaphysical conclusions it gets an F. I Origins is rated R for sexuality/nudity, language, drug use, and a scene of violence.