Andrew Cumming’s feature directorial debut, The Origin, executes its high concept with impressive ambition. Not only does it travel back 45,000 years in time to tell the survival thriller, but Cummings and screenwriter Ruth Greenberg developed a fictional language for its characters. Combined with a handsomely shot production, it ensures that The Origin beguiles, though it struggles to mine suspense from its thrills and falters in the destination.
The Origin introduces six early human settlers in the midst of an arduous journey to find new land. They’ve traveled countless miles across desolate tundras, with food scarce and the elements harsh. As they approach a forest, it becomes clear that something is watching, stalking, and preying upon them one by one.
Cummings and Greenberg introduce this unique world and its characters around a campfire, establishing the merciless way of life and how it shapes its Stone Age inhabitants. Adem (Chuku Modu) is the Alpha male, leading his motley tribe through brute force and a steely determination. Adem is most protective of his first-born son, Heron (Luna Mwezi), with another potential son on the way with the very pregnant Ave (Iola Evans). Geirr (Kit Young) is also important to the clan as Adem’s capable but more reserved and less decisive second-in-command. The elder Odal’s (Arno Lüning) superstitions and fear put him almost near the bottom of the pack. Almost. The group picked up stray Beyah (Safia Oakley-Green) along their journeys, making her the most disposable even as she works hard to prove her worth.
Cinematography Ben Fordesman (Saint Maud) makes for The Origin’s strongest asset, along with the lush production value provided by the Scottish Highlands that serve as the harsh Stone Age terrain. Night feels like a thick, pitch-black abyss with only the faint flickers of campfire flames to chase away the encroaching danger. The landscapes are stunning but unforgiving. Even the foggy, foreboding forests lend personality to this world. It’s bolstered by Paul Davies’ sound design, especially regarding the eerie clicks, growls, and screeches echoing across wide spaces, signaling the lurking threat.
Both go a long way in distracting from the lack of tension employed. It’s the human conflicts that take center stage, and the few intense encounters with their unseen foe often don’t wring the chills necessary to escalate the stakes. Cummings wisely keeps this mysterious creature off-screen for as long as possible, stretching intrigue along the path peppered by a few brutal deaths. But when the answers start coming, The Origin slips from a Stone Age thriller into a morose, didactic commentary on humanity, frequently revealed through this clan’s hierarchy.
The handsomely shot and stunning craft on display makes for an impressive debut by Cummings. The high concept ultimately falls apart by the final bow, and some might feel short-changed by the premise. The Origin defies narrative expectations in many ways, and a spirited performance by Oakley-Green maintains rooting interest. While that ultimately may prove divisive, Cummings establishes himself as one to watch straightaway for the bold approach to an intensely ambitious production.
The Origin screened at Fantastic Fest. Release info TBA.