Into the Unanswerable

Director Mike Cahill has created another low(er)-budget exploration of sci-fi themes

A scientist is forced to

question his own beliefs about spirituality and reincarnation after a one-night stand in I Origins, a solid second feature effort from writer-director Mike Cahill (Another Earth).

Cahill did himself a big favor by casting Michael Pitt, who is perfect for the role of Ian, a biologist fascinated with eyes. Ian is conducting an experiment to help colorblind mice see colors, and his fascination with eyes carries over into his private life where he photographs them as a pastime.

He takes a picture of an especially unusual pair during a quickie with a female stranger at a costume party. The woman he sleeps with in a bathroom makes a sudden exit shortly after her eyes are captured by camera without giving her name or number.

A strange, almost supernatural chain of events leads Ian back to the woman, an eye model named Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). The two wind up together, with Sofi having a far more esoteric view of life as we know it than Ian, who believes everything is explainable by science. After an especially unfortunate elevator ride, Ian's system of beliefs is truly put to the test.

Brit Marling, the star of Cahill's Another Earth, plays a pivotal role as Karen, Ian's lab partner and eventual wife. While Karen shares an equal amount of enthusiasm for all things science, she also fosters a fascination in the otherworldly and unexplained. She encourages Ian to travel to India in a search for answers regarding the eyes as possible signifiers of reincarnated spirits.

The film plays out in three movements, those being Ian's meeting Sofi, Ian's relationship with Sofi while trying to grow eyes on worms, and Ian's search for Sofi's spirit seven years after she has left him. All of the film's movements string together well thanks to Cahill's strong script and impeccable direction.

It's all a bit outlandish, but Cahill and cast play it straight, making an "out there" premise both fascinating and levelheaded. Pitt has a sort of relaxed, authoritative bemusement in the role, making Ian's sudden willingness to explore his spiritual side convincing and earnest. He's an actor who always occupies his roles with a commitment rivaled by few others. If you haven't seen him in the remake of Funny Games, Boardwalk Empire or Gus Van Sant's underrated Last Days, I suggest you get cracking.

Berges-Frisbey, a relative unknown whose major film credit is an appearance in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, has splendid acting talents to go with her captivating looks (The camera has a blatant, unapologetic crush on her). She creates something quite memorable with Sofi, a tragic, beautiful figure who haunts the film.

Fans of The Walking Dead will appreciate the presence of Steven Yeun (who plays Glenn on the AMC series) as Ian's friend, Kenny. It's not a big part, but he manages to make his mark with little screen time. Marling brings an interesting edge to Karen, a free spirited woman who must let go of all her inhibitions to help Ian seek answers in India. She's making a nice name for herself in Cahill's films.

Cahill is proving himself quite the expert at taking ridiculous premises and making them plausible and easy to digest. His films have that nice sci-fi element without the benefits of big budgets and special effects. He plays around in the surreal without acting like it's a really big deal.

Next up for Cahill is, well, nothing as of yet. Part of me wants to see what he would do with a big budget, while another part of me fears he could lose his edge with money to spend. There's a charm to the way he does sci-fi that might get lost with alien makeup and laser beams.

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