Signal Horizon

See Beyond

{BFI London Film Festival} The Origin

A group of individuals fighting off an unknown menace isn’t exactly new territory. Yet, this plotline feels new and raw in The Origin, a prehistoric flip on survival horror offering an ever-relevant reflection on the consequences of othering one another.

Scottish filmmaker Andrew Cumming breathes new life into a horror staple, taking viewers back to where it all started. Premiered at London Film Festival, The Origin takes place 45,000 years ago. As such, it claims its spot in history as the first horror in a chronological continuum of terrible events. Shot in the Scottish highlands during the pandemic, the film’s events unfold in an unspecified Northern European setting, as breathtaking as is unforgiving. Home is a broad concept in this world, where the possibilities of settling down and starting anew are virtually infinite. And those of succumbing to a hostile environment and becoming prey are just as many.

Finding a forever home is the goal of a small circle of Old Stone Age people fleeing a barren land. Brothers Adem (Chuku Mudu) and Geirr (Kit Young) lead the group, together with elder Odal (Arno Luening). Rounding out this contingent are Adem’s heavily pregnant partner Ave (Iola Evans), their son Heron (female child actress Luna Mwezi), and Beyah (Safia Oakley-Green), a “stray” who has only recently joined them. She’s keeping her guard high, and rightfully so, as Adem tells her he intends to use her “for whatever he needs”.

When Heron is kidnapped, Adem pushes his clan to search for him in a perilous forest, home to a creature that might claim their lives for trespassing. As the protagonists attempt to understand how this Predator-like monster hunts, the group’s dynamics change in a central act that makes the characters question everything they know.

The language of The Origin

Significantly, The Origin opens with an image of the gang’s campfire standing out across a pitch-black background and slowly coming into focus. A symbol of cozy, domestic bliss and a weapon to fend off potential threats, the campfire is where the protagonists gather to tell hopeful stories of new beginnings they may never get to experience. They’re speaking in Tola, a made-up language developed for the film by linguist Dr. Daniel Andersson and subtitled in English.

This world-rebuilding is perhaps the most fascinating element of The Origin, adding to an unsettling premise that is the core of countless horror narratives and making it part of our collective past — one we’ve never seen nor heard before.

Noise is crucial to the movie’s denouement. The increasingly uneasy, carefully crafted sound design hints at creatures lurking in the dark, while also dialing some genuinely disgusting moments up to eleven. I won’t spoil them, but rest assured that The Origin is not for the squeamish. Gore abounds in the build-up to the final revelation, delivering a shocking, bitter epilogue that makes up for a lengthy, yet not always juicy, middle act.

The cinematography makes the most of the natural elements, using the cracking fire to amplify the terror and anguish painted on the protagonists’ faces. And a lot is conveyed through the elements, with nature becoming a character in its own right. The performances, particularly that of Oakley-Green, are captivating, infusing urgency and desperation into a foreign tongue we may not understand, but whose nuances are universal.

Race and gender politics in The Origin

Thanks to the collaboration between Cumming and archaeologist Dr. Rob Dinnis, the film has the merit to not white-wash the Old Stone Age. The Origin features actors from different backgrounds in the roles of cave-people, challenging the notion that prehistoric individuals were mainly white.

Not as inclusive are the film’s gender politics, sticking to traditional preconceptions relegating women to nursing and mothering roles. These are reversed in the face of unspeakable danger, with Beyah becoming the first-ever final girl, and a flawed one at that. She has a relatively standard ascending badass arc, turning into the sole heroine of this story. There isn’t room for female survivors here, and The Origin soon pits her against Ave. Unlike the mother-to-be, Beyah refuses to play along with a misogynistic pre-society and exacts her revenge on Adem in an effective, albeit incidental, way.

Though clichéd, her hardened and closed-off demeanor makes for a nice contrast with that of Geirr. Sweet-natured and fragile, he’s nothing like his pack-leading, alpha-male older brother. There’s a glimpse of non-toxic masculinity in Cumming’s Old Stone Age, and it makes us wonder what must’ve happened between then and now to fail to cultivate that.

It doesn’t (re)invent the wheel — we’d have to wait a while for that— but The Origin makes for a tense experiment. The film’s final minutes add to the never-settled debate investigating who the monsters truly are, returning to where it all began. It’s a shame we haven’t come very far in realizing the answer doesn’t matter; it’s what we do to acknowledge our responsibility that does.