Saturday, January 3, 2015

The I's do not have it

You've probably had just about enough of my posts inspired by coincidences in my viewing schedule. Well, hopefully you'll be willing to sit through (at least) one more.

I think you'll agree this one is worth it. On January 1st, I watched both I Origins and I, Frankenstein. What were the odds?

Neither viewing was premeditated. In the afternoon, when we'd returned from our trip to Tasmania and were trying to run out the hours until our kids' bedtime, I started I, Frankenstein on Netflix. My wife was watching something on Netflix on her computer in the other room, while my younger son was sleeping and my older son was contentedly playing by himself in his room, so I figured, why not? Of course, his contented playing didn't last and I didn't actually finish I, Frankenstein until the evening of January 2nd.

Then I Origins was chosen from among our rented iTunes movies as the evening viewing, having only 11 more days until it expired.

I knew I, Frankenstein would be terrible, and it was. What I didn't realize was that I Origins would actually be worse.

I loved Mike Cahill's previous collaboration with Brit Marling, 2011's Another Earth. I ranked it fourth for the year. Unfortunately, the ways in which this is a different type of collaboration between Cahill and Marling probably point to why I disliked I Origins so much. Marling helped write Another Earth, in addition to appearing in it. Here she's only an actor, and as it turns out, Cahill should not be left to his own devices when it comes to writing a screenplay.

Not only are the characters in this movie insufferable -- I loathe Michael Pitt, so I should have been wary from the start -- but the dialogue is so heavy-handed and so laden with depth and significance that it becomes stifling in only the first few minutes. This is one of those movies that believes in the ability of souls to find each other across multiple lifetimes, but commits the cardinal sin of not investing us in the bearers of those souls. If you are going to give yourself over to such a romantic notion, you have to feel a desperate desire for the characters to be together. With actors as flat and uninteresting as Pitt and the ridiculously named Astrid Berges-Frisbey, who have zero chemistry, that's a near impossibility. And if you want some idea how labored and obvious his themes are, there are so many images of eyes in this movie that my wife and I quickly developed a joke about the movie that just involved yelling "Eyes! EYES!" I guess that's supposed to be the movie itself, screaming at us.

I did think it was interesting that the movie has a totally pointless section on numerology, where Pitt's character sees the number 11 everywhere, and all the 11's lead him to find this soulmate, whom he met at a party but whose name he never got. However, I only find it interesting because I watched the movie on 1/1 -- which is also an 11. (And there were only 11 more days until it expired on iTunes, another 11 I am just noticing now.)

I, Frankenstein commits the more banal sin of being just another bad angels-and-demons movie that has descended from Constantine -- though that description gives Constantine more credit than it really deserves. Also, it's about ten times more ridiculous than these movies usually get -- but not in a good way like, say, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. So it's about the immortal Frankenstein's monster living on into the modern era -- not a bad idea for a movie, and one that would make it a lot like your typical vampire movie. But then it takes this idea that's essentially based in science and realism -- reanimating a human being through pulses of electricity -- and lards it with supernatural nonsense about demons and gargoyles waging a centuries-old battle. It's total nonsense.

I had a moment of sadness watching I, Frankenstein, though, as I mourned the death of digital effects as a guarantor of something at least sort of cool. To go back to Constantine for a moment, that's not a great film, and it might not even be a good one. But I remember thinking that the effects conjured things I hadn't seen before, blends of the gothic and the supernatural that made the film visually distinctive enough to be worth recommending. Since then, though, we've been barraged by crap like Priest, Legion, Dracula Untold, and countless Underworld sequels. So even when I, Frankenstein has the occasional moment of genuine visual distinction, it's so inseparable from other movies and other uses of digital effects that it can't even raise the movie to 1.5 stars. Nope, it's just one-star crap, which happens to exist in an era in which one-star crap can look pretty shiny.

The commonalities between these two movies extend beyond just the similarity of their titles. As it turns out, both movies are also about creating biological life from scratch. A Frankenstein story is obviously all about that, but I didn't realize until it was already going that I Origins has a similar theme. The scientists played by Pitt and Marling are trying to create an eye in creatures who have none, to see if they can supply sight artificially. In another one of Cahill's on-the-nose lines of dialogue, Berges-Frisbey's character tells Pitt "It's dangerous to play God."

I guess I'm grateful for that particular bit of obviousness, because it allowed me to realize an additional connection between my two movies. They are also both appropriate as January 1st movies, as they involve notions of rebirth that tend to be at the forefront of everyone's thoughts this time of year.

It's just too bad they couldn't be worth a squirt of piss between them.

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