Intelligent by design

Filmmaker Mike Cahill once stated that scientists have always fascinated him because he knows he’ll never be one himself — he makes movies about them instead.

“Science lends itself really well to cinema because science is the landscape of new frontiers” says the acclaimed Brooklyn-based director while discussing his latest feature I Origins. “In this movie we look at the eye we look at iris biometrics we look at new technologies that exist now that did not exist 50 years ago and we tell stories using those new technologies — that’s only possible with innovations from science.”

Don’t let the scientific jargon scare you. While I Origins does play with a few abstract ideas involving molecular biology it plays more as a clever device to weave dramatic tension around the labyrinthine plot of a scientist (Michael Pitt of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) hell bent on disproving the theory of intelligent design. However when the young iris expert makes a stunning discovery it leads to some thought-provoking conflicts between the scientific and spiritual beliefs of both the character and the audience. To get more detailed about the premise would be to give too much away.

“If you know the entire story it’s still pretty compelling” insists Cahill. “But I think the less you know the better it is. However if you watch it more than once you peel away the layers and there’s more and more to discover within the film. A first viewing is satisfying to a degree. The plot is one thing but the plot is not the whole movie — there’s the performances there’s the emotion — there’s layers that we put into every frame of the film.”

One of the layers that should be noted revolves around the curiosity and possibility of reincarnation — something that will surely stir the ire of a few on either side of the afterlife debate.

“My job is not to force feed anything” says Cahill who contends he’s merely searching for answers like everyone else. “I think you feel that spirit in the movie. I think the movie is actually quite sincere. It’s questioning and very apparent (that) the film is not provocative in that manner. It’s earnest; it’s truly questioning and says let’s do this together. It’s inclusive more than anything.”

It’s not the first time Cahill has raised philosophical questions. In 2011 the filmmaker turned heads with Another Earth — an award-winning sci-fi drama that investigated ideas of choice and consequence on the setting of a duplicate Earth. The movie had critics praising Cahill for his unique ability to craft a movie of epic-scale on a modest budget — something he has managed again with I Origins.

The Plot is one thing but the plot is not the whole thing — there’s the performances there’s the emotion — there’s layers that we put into every frame of the film– Mike Cahill director I Origins

“I never felt restricted in that manner” says Cahill insisting most films today needlessly rely more on big-budget special effects than story. “I feel like it is as big as it should be and I feel like the ideas are timeless. It will not look dated years from now and your scale is as infinite as your context so I never felt restricted (by money).”

The ideas in I Origins are big. Inasmuch as I Origins juggles dramatic twists and scientific principles Cahill hopes more than anything that audiences will walk away simply feeling a little less stressed about the plausibility of afterlife.

“One of the existential fears we have as a species is fear of death — what happens when we die fear of the unknown — and a great deal of science and a great deal of spirituality is fuelled by that unknown” says Cahill. “It’s a big question that stirs a great deal of fear in people so if there were a way to lessen or diminish that fear even ever so slightly through storytelling — then it’s all worthwhile.”