In the indie sci-fi drama “I, Origins,” a follow up to his amazing 2011 indie sci-fi drama “Another Earth,” director/writer Mike Cahill, 35, explores the idea of discrediting the existence of God through scientific experimentation and also examines the possibility that reincarnation can occur in the afterlife. Actors Michael Pitt and Brit Marling play Ian and Karen, microbiologists whose research of the human eye leads them to the groundbreaking findings.
During an interview with Cahill, we talked about why religious beliefs (or lack thereof) didn’t factor into his screenplay, whether science and spirituality can co-exist in this day and age, and if Cahill is someone who believes in the existence of a soul mate.
In the film, Ian and Karen are looking for evidence of something that will ultimately prove God does not exist. Can you talk about how your own personal religious beliefs, if at all, played a part in developing a script that tackles these complex themes?
My personal beliefs are not at stake, so they’re entirely different from what’s going on in the film. But I did want to tell a story about scientists and their relationship with the metaphysical and the divine or the idea of spirits. I think we get bogged down in words and language and semantics. I felt really compelled in trying to tell a story where the words of any religion or spiritual movements are not used. The words we use in the film are scientific. The approach that Karen and Ian use is scientific. They are looking for numerical proof and for the science to make sense when it comes to these very peculiar events that are taking place.
When you say you didn’t want the story to be bogged down by semantics, do you mean you didn’t want to use terms like atheism or agnosticism and specifically define who these characters are in that aspect?
Exactly! There is a lot of baggage in those words. There is a lot of baggage in any word associated in favor of any particular religion or belief system. For example, a lot of people say this movie is about reincarnation, but the term reincarnation is never spoken in the film even once. That was done on purpose. There is one moment where Karen asks, “What if the eyes are really the window to the soul?” She alludes to that cliché, poetic statement that has been around for centuries. Ian quickly jumps on her for saying the word “soul.” Even the characters are moving against preexisting terminology that has a lot of connotation and looking at pure testable things like memory and phobia. The rest of it is left up to the audience to input their selves into the narrative and give it meaning.
I really do hope people are able to come into a film like this with an open mind, especially if they’re automatically turned off by themes that conflict with their personal beliefs.
Given the opportunity, I think anyone who decides to sit down and watch this film will learn very quickly that it is not one that takes sides. The film is very respectful to all beliefs. If you go to the DVD stores, [“I, Origins”] is not going to be listed under religious-themed films. It’s a sci-fi movie that exists in the realm of speculative fiction. This is a narrative that hopefully inspires you to look closer into someone’s eyes and think, “What if this were possible?”
On that note, do you think science and spirituality can co-exist? I mean, people love it when they can watch Bill Nye debate Ken Ham because they are on such opposite ends of the spectrum and can root for one of them based on what they believe themselves.
I think it is so unquestionable that they can co-exist! That is articulated in one particular scene in the movie where Sofi goes into the laboratory and talks about the worm. Worms are the key to understanding that spirituality and science can co-exist. She uses Ian’s experiments to shed light on this very particular thing, which is that there are worms that have two senses and he modifies them to have three. That is something that is taking place in laboratories right now. It is reality. Until that moment, the worm only knew things through smell and touch. It had no access to the world of light. They didn’t have the capability or the sensorial ability to even know about it. Yet light influences things that they smell and touch. That is very similar to how the world beyond our five senses works. We really should have six or seven or eight. There are realms that we can’t touch. We are feeling the ashes of that through coincidences and through familiarity when we meet a person for the first time. Things happen to us in domains that we don’t have sensorial access to that have their own metaphysics. It is beyond our tangible, touchable, testable scientific or experimental method to understand. Once you wrap your head around that concept, everyone is like, “Oh, man, now that’s peaceful!”
The film asks interesting questions about how people are romantically connected on a deeper level. Are you someone who believes in the idea of a soul mate? Or do you think it would be virtually impossible to find that person, assuming he or she exists, among the billions of people living on this earth?
Do I believe in soul mates? I would say yes. I think my wife is that to me. I don’t mean it in a Valentine’s Day card sort of way. When I met my wife, I felt like I had known her for 3,000 years. It was literally instant. From the moment we met to this day, I haven’t spent a single day away from her. We have this weird, very amazing connection that I can’t explain. I want to understand those deeply connected feelings you have with another person that feels beyond, “Oh, we have the same interests. You like that music? I like that music, too.” It’s not that. It’s something more. [“I, Origins”] attempts to explain or at least gives some narrative to that. “Soul mate” is such a loaded term, but familiarity and peacefulness with a person is not common with everyone you meet. That should be acknowledged.
I read in another interview that you are thinking about writing a sequel to this film. You don’t strike me at all as a sequel-making kind of director, especially since this film and “Another Earth” allow audiences to decide for themselves what happens next. I love when films cut to black and everything is still open ended.
Yeah, so do I.
So, why make a sequel? Are you going to answer some of those questions left open ended in “I, Origins” for us?
It would be a totally different story that takes place 20 years in the future. As an audience member, you own the ending of this film. Your interpretation is the ownership of it. I would explore something else that is deeply human and deeply personal. The idea in a nutshell is exploring our subconscious triggers – the things that are embedded inside our subconscious that we don’t necessarily have access to. I’d use this sci-fi concept as a metaphor for that and how we block out our traumatic past. It’s a totally rich, wonderful universe to explore.