“Aye I Eye”
Mike Cahill’s 2014 New Age science film, I Origins begins with a series of close-ups of eyes. In voice over, molecular biologist Ian (Michael Pitt) explains that he researches eyes because of the fascinating connection between the human eye and the camera, both lens-based technologies of vision. His scientific quest is to disprove intelligent design creationism by breeding generations of an organism that began with no eyesight, but ended with fully evolved, complex eyeballs.
The opening close-ups of eyeballs in I Origins link the film to the cinema’s historical fascination with eyes as the windows to the soul, a phrase the film directly evokes. For example, the quintessential New Hollywood science-fiction film, Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) begins with a close-up of a cyborg’s eyeball as he descends to the Earth from the heavens to which he had been banished. He spends the rest of the film murdering in a mad quest to reunite with his creator, Tyrell, whose eyes he pops out like Oedipus in retribution.
I Origins is not interested in such science fiction. The film makes two tactical intertextual references to eyeballs that lead the film toward a melodramatic interrogation of the relationship between science and spirituality. At the beginning of the film, Ian meets a masked woman, Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) at a Halloween costume party. After they make love, she disappears. Obsessed with the mystery woman, he uses the photographs he’s taken of her eyes to attempt to track her down. He does so when he sees her eyes on a huge billboard, an advertisement for make-up. Once reunited with Sofi, Ian falls in love with her, and they get married.
The billboard invokes “the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg,” a prominent symbol in The Great Gatsby (1925). Advertising an eye doctor, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s billboard is placed in “the valley of ashes,” a no-man’s land between the domains of the rich and privileged, who work in Manhattan and live in mansions on Long Island. Fitzgerald laments a depletion of spiritual connection between human beings created by the greed of American capitalism. I Origins employs this symbol in a new register, lamenting our loss of spiritual connection at the hands of positivist science.
Narratively, the film reinvents Vertigo (1958). Alfred Hitchcock’s film begins with a close-up of a maddening spiral emerging from a woman’s eye. The opening of I Origins uses the eyeball close-ups not for the purposes of science fiction, but to instead establish a melodramatic mystery. Hitchcock’s film explores the duplicity of love. Evil Gavin Elster has preyed on his former college chum so that he can get away with the murder of his wife. Knowing Scottie (James Stewart) will not be able to climb a bell-tower because of his vertigo, Gavin hires Judy (Kim Novak) to pretend she is Madeleine, his wife. Judy allows Scottie to fall in love with him, forcing him to follow her to the bell-tower where she purportedly commits suicide. In the second half of the film, the devastated Scottie runs into Judy on the street, shocked to find his beloved Madeline’s doppelgänger. In an effort to solve the crime and exorcise his demons, Scottie takes Judy back to the scene of the crime, atop the tower, where a nun frightens Judy, causing her to plunge to her death. A devastated Scottie stands atop the tower, crucified by the unbearable torture of having lost his love twice in an identical fashion.
I Origins repeatedly invokes Vertigo. Ian’s puppy dog searching for the lost Sofi invokes both Scottie’s pursuit of the wandering Madeline in the first half of Hitchcock’s film, but also Scottie’s own forlorn aimlessness at the beginning of the second half, after Madeline’s death. Midway through Cahill’s new film, right after their marriage, Sofi and Ian get stuck in an elevator. Ian tries to pull Sofi up onto the next floor to safety, but the elevator slips, killing Sofi. After Ian and his lab partner and new wife, Karen (Brit Marling) discover the organism they can breed to prove the evolution of the eyeball, they have a baby, Tobias. Another science researcher, Dr. Simmons (fulfilling the catalyst role of Gavin Elster in Vertigo), does iris recognition tests on Tobias, causing Ian to discover a child in India with the dead Sofi’s exact eye patterns.
In India, Ian tracks down the child by returning to the Dr. Eckleburg motif: he purchases a huge billboard of Sofi’s eyes, asking for anyone who recognizes them to contact him. He meets a poor girl on the streets, Salomina who has Sofi’s exact eye patterns. The camera tilts down from a shot of the billboard to reveal Ian first setting eyes on Salomina. The camera swirls 360 degrees around Ian and the little girl. This replicates a shot toward the end of Vertigo, when Scottie and Judy kiss in her hotel room. Cahill thus replaces the romanticism of Vertigo with the swirling contradictions between science and religion.
Ian takes the starving girl to his hotel room. After feeding her strawberries, he begins doing tests, trying to establish the spiritual link between Salomina and Sofi. When she only gets 44% of the questions correct, it seems Ian has become convinced that science is correct, that there is no way she could be Sofi reincarnated. However, at two different times during the film, the elevator at the hotel has been associated with a mysterious American wearing a cowboy hat who comments on religion. As the devastated Ian waits for this elevator yet again, to take Salomina back to the ghetto, he pats the child on her head.
When the elevator door opens, she screams in terror. This convinces Ian that Salomina is in fact the reincarnated Sofi. However, when Ian hugs the girl to console her, we see a wry smile on her face. Is she remembering a past life, or is she simply upset that the man who has been kind to her and fed her food is about to abandon her? I Origins is a terrific science film, one that has learned from the artistic ambiguities of great art. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Alfred Hitchcock before him, Mike Cahill has demonstrated that the story of scientific certainty needs to be tempered with the beautiful equivocations of human storytelling.