"Everyone looks into someone’s eyes and they feel things."
In 1985, a photograph featuring the "Afghan Girl" graced the cover of National Geographic. Her captivating gaze drew global attention, yet even the photographer, Steve McCurry, remained unaware of her identity. Nearly twenty years later, the magazine announced a significant revelation: they knew her name, and they were sure. Her identity was established through a unique method; a scan of the eyes in the photograph was compared to an iris scan of her as an adult. Since irises are as distinct as fingerprints, a high-resolution photograph can serve as a substitute when the actual eye is inaccessible. Filmmaker Mike Cahill, best known for “Another Earth”, found this narrative particularly enchanting, seeing it as an ideal backdrop for exploring the intersection of science and spirituality to which then came “I Origins” in 2014.
A Ph.D. student, Ian Gray (Michael Pitt), is researching the evolution of the eye with research partner, Kenny (Steven Yeun), and first-year lab assistant, Karen (Brit Marling). At a Halloween party Gray encounters Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), a young woman masked with only hazel-speckled, ash-blue eyes visible. She later leads him into the washroom to have a sexy encounter before abruptly leaving.
Mysterious synchronicities, like the recurring number 11, guide Gray to a billboard on which he recognizes Sofi's eyes. Eventually he sees her on a train and they begin a relationship being deeply in love, despite Ian's hard rationalism in sharp contrast with Sofi's spirituality. One day they spontaneously agree to marry but must wait a day for a license. Disappointed, they walk out of the registry office. Ian gets a call from Karen who says she has found a blind worm—Eisenia fetida—with the DNA necessary to develop an eye. An ecstatic Ian takes Sofi to the lab with him. However, an elevator accident leads Sofi to her untimely death. Ian, devastated, withdraws from life. Eventually, he shares an intimate moment with Karen, leading to an emotional turning point.
The film flashes forward seven years. Ian has written an eye evolution book and is now married to a pregnant Karen. Ian still has feelings for Sofi that are combined with the guilt he feels for her death. When their baby is born, the hospital's iris scan of baby Tobias initially identifies him as Paul Edgar Dairy, a glitch that's corrected by the nurse. Later on Ian discovers a link to Paul Edgar Dairy, who had just died before their baby was conceived.
Their lab partner Kenny, now in charge of the iris scan database, helps them run tests and photos of deceased family members to see if there are any other recent matches. They get a hit for Sofi, whose iris scan matches one made in India just three months prior, years after Sofi's death.
Ian goes to India to find the subject of this scan, an orphan girl named Salomina. With help from Priya Varma, he spends weeks searching and putting up billboards. Eventually he finds the little girl staring at the billboard. He takes Salomina back to his hotel and contacts Karen over Skype. The two of them conduct a simple test designed to reveal if Salomina might be somehow linked with Sofi's memories. The results, though showing a 44% success score within the expected range of chance, leave Ian somewhat disheartened. But when they reach the elevator, the moment the doors open Salomina panics and throws herself into his arms, too frightened to enter. Staring into each other's eyes with a certain recognition, they then cling to each other, tears streaming down both their faces. He picks her up and takes her down the stairs instead, with Salomina tightly gripping his neck, till they walk from the dark interior and step out into the light.
Spirituality and Philosophical Views
The notion that eyes are the window to the soul has been attributed variously to Shakespeare, Cicero and Leonardo Da Vinci. Some in Ian’s situation might say that fate — even divine intervention — played a part in their coming together, but Ian never would. He is determined to prove that God doesn't exist. Despite a few plot holes, the film works on several levels. Sofi couldn't be more different from Ian. They approach life in distinctly dissimilar ways. Ian is meticulous, problem-solving and drawn to the concrete. Sofi is intuitive and unpredictable, drawn to the intangible and unknowable. Their connection is erotic, emotional and intense.
Uniqueness of the Iris
Ophthalmologists confirmed in the 1980s that the patterns on the iris are unique to each individual. And so, iris recognition is an extremely reliable and accurate identification method with very low false match rates. The connection between reality and fiction clarifies why, despite the director of I Origins, Mike Cahill not insisting on absolute factual accuracy, they employ scientific concepts to explore aspects that can't be scrutinized in a laboratory setting. For Cahill, it was the enigmatic and romantic sensation of gazing into someone's eyes and experiencing a profound sense of familiarity. It revolved around the notion that humans might possess untapped potential beyond our current understanding.
Cahill based Pitt’s Ian Gray character loosely on scientist Richard Dawkins. “The scanning of the color part of your eye has been around since 1987 when he figured out the algorithm and it’s been a slow-growing technology over the years. Nowadays in New York City if a person is arrested they get their eye scanned, babies in hospitals get their eyes scanned, you can go through the fast lane at the airport if you do your iris scan.” Cahill became further sold on the power of iris scans after checking out a TED Talk by Jeff Carter. “He talks about how fingerprints only give you so many degrees of accuracy, where as the patterns in your eyes form when you’re in your mother’s womb and stay the same for you for your entire life,” Cahill notes. “From a technological standpoint, it’s a great way to ID a person. And since the eye has also enticed poets since the dawn of civilization, it seemed like a wonderful meeting place for two of my greatest passions–science and spirituality.”
Did you know:
For a brief moment in the opening credits only the letters I and O are shown in the movie title. This gives “IOII”. In binary the number 1011 translates as eleven which is an important number throughout the film.
Now that we are more familiar with Ian and Sofi’s story, have you ever met someone and had an instant reaction to? The chemistry was so insane that it left you thinking “what even was that?”
Like Ian, I too have somehow become obsessed with the eyes, especially the iris from the very first time I watched I Origins. Years later to my surprise, I found Eye Sea Bali, the first and only iris photography service in Bali. First opened in December 2022, Eye Sea offers the perfect and unique gift with a range of printing options (you can even opt for a combo of you + your loved one’s iris together, in one picture). Caroline, the owner, is a graphic designer and photographer. The name Eye Sea itself traces back to the famous idea of the eyes being doors / windows to the universe, to the sea of thoughts. It is also a word play for “I See”, meaning clairvoyancy.
“Over the course of the year, we have been visited by a lot of people from different countries, and it’s truly amazing that everyone leaves a piece of themselves in our studio. Photographing eyes is our passion, because every time we meet different eye colors and features in the form of moles and other details.”
Whose eyes would you say are unforgettable?
Readers of this blog are eligible for a 10% discount at Eye Sea Bali for Iris Photography. Simply state the code “THYRA” when visiting.