A molecular biologist, Ian Gray (Michael Pitt), meets a beautiful woman (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) at a party and falls deeply in love. Meanwhile, Gray and his lab partners (Brit Marling, Steven Yeun) uncover shocking evidence while researching human eyes that could change how we see the world and cause society to question everything they thought they knew about both science and spirituality.

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KARLOVY VARY INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Sundance favourite Mike Cahill provides a worthy, thought-provoking follow-up to his award-winning 2011 debut, Another Earth, in which fact and faith square off with increasing complexity and consequences.

From its ethereal opening (and voiceover), it is clear that the film’s protagonist, scientist Ian Gray (Michael Pitt), dances to the beat of his own drum. An intense and curious creature, he shoots close-ups of the human eye, for reasons that become clearer through the persistence of his first-year assistant, Karen (Brit Marling). Unlike this bookish newcomer, Gray is partial to a wild and untamed life away from the lab.

It is through this that he meets the alluring and elusive Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey). Their cat-and-mouse courting swiftly turns to lust-fuelled desire (delivered via a flurry of touching sequences, edited by Cahill himself). One could be forgiven for expecting science to take a back seat, as the pair embark on a heady affair whose formal union is only stymied by the bureaucracy of the registry office they visit.

Yet writer-director Cahill’s fascination with Earth, science, faith and the after-life remains intact and resolutely focused, with a freak accident helping to readjust the narrative’s equilibrium. From then on, investigative science – relayed in an accessible, if at times only half-convincing way – takes centre stage.

Cahill elicits exquisite, disarming turns from both Pitt and Bergès-Frisbey, the former defiantly carrying the film, the latter offering a forbidden, fragile beauty. Marling, an indie darling in such company, provides solid support.

Like its predecessor, I Origins won Sundance’s science-based prize, the Alfred P Sloan award, but carries a greater depth of emotion in its arsenal than its lower-budget elder. Visually, the film mines a vein akin to classic Malick, albeit with an altogether more other-worldly quality, one that appears to be fast-becoming Cahill’s raison d’être. As this curious tale reaches its third act, Gray is no longer sure that his beloved science can so easily dismiss the creationists he’s been so at pains to disprove. A profoundly haunting sequence, featuring a young Indian newcomer named Kashish, provides more startling questions than it can answer. We may, in time, solve the riddle of how we came to be, the film seems to be saying, but the answer is unlikely to provide what we had expected.

Aided by the superior lensing of German Markus Forderer, and a suitably immersive score (from Will Bates and Phil Mossman), Cahill’s film overcomes its scientific shortcomings with a clear and defined sense of purpose. As with its likeable predecessor, this journey into (and out of) our world defies expectation even as it divides opinion (which it did in the US, during its brief theatrical run). Yet armed with a profoundly affecting tone and style that’s impossible to shake off, I Origins could well prove the most emotive film of the year. It’s a rare and rather moving delight.

I Origins

8:35PM, Wed 6 Nov on SBS VICELAND

M
USA, 2014
Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi
Language: English
Director: Mike Cahill
Starring: Brit Marling, Steven Yeun, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, Archie Panjabi, Michael Pitt
What's it about?
A molecular biologist, Ian Gray (Pitt), meets a beautiful woman (Bergès-Frisbey) at a party and falls deeply in love. Meanwhile, Gray and his lab partners (Marling, Yeun) uncover shocking evidence while researching human eyes that could change how we see the world and cause society to question everything they thought they knew about both science and spirituality.

The eyes have it: Michael Pitt debunks creationism in I Origins