It’s often been said that eyes are the windows to the soul. In I Origins, they’re also doors for that soul to come out—like a metaphysical appendix to “On the Origin of the Species.”
A strangely deliberate but affecting movie, Mike Cahill’s second feature returns to the crossroads of science fiction and not-so-fantastic fantasy, which underscored his directorial debut, the haunting Another Earth (2011). And while I Origins doesn’t quite reach the gravitational heights of that thoughtful venture, it inescapably has the ability to use meticulous scientific fields of study, depicted with earnest reverence, as a part of its case for genuine spirituality and even reincarnation. It is worth wondering if the scientific community would be honored by this film or chagrined at its transmigration daydreams.
Centered on a molecular biologist named Dr. Ian Gray (Michael Pitt), in many ways I Origins is a love story between three people: Ian, his research partner Karen (Brit Marling), and the spectral pair of irises that overcast the whole picture like the fixated stare of divinity itself…Sofi (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey). Yet, the real intelligent design of the picture is how this triumvirate is not the central conflict, but the progenitor of a far bigger quandary.
Ian is a militant atheist. Fiercely skeptical and empirically-inclined, his character is more than a little inspired by Richard Dawkins. A molecular biologist by choice, Ian is obsessed with the eye, because it is considered by some to be the frontline of the evolutionary debate as a whole and the “intelligent design” alternative choice in particular. Simply put, many argue that the eye is too complicated an organ to be created by chance or biological good fortune. Thus only a grad student with a strict worth ethic, Ian is already pursuing his life’s work by searching for a form of blind worm that he can evolve to have the sense of sight.
It is an ambitious goal, yet not even the real thrust of the movie. That belongs to the pair of eyes he happens to photograph one night at a party and fall madly in love with: Sofi’s eyes. A French transplant who is as much a citizen of the world as her dilapidated Brooklyn apartment, Sofi is a free spirit that floats right through Ian’s fingers after a brief, intense romance. Becoming his own spiritual calling, Sofi ultimately instigates a seven-year journey for Ian that might result in empirical proof of metempsychosis.
The movie’s varying subplots and passing narrative glances are held together by Michael Pitt’s hard-nosed performance, which sincerely supplants the previous image of an actor that usually plays hotheads. The only way that Ian’s head will ever get hot is if he stares at something under a microscope lamp for too long. Never belligerent in its opinions, Pitt’s performance maintains the position as the film’s sympathetic anchor even if he excels his character in early scenes through a seemingly insurmountable sense of self and bemused authority.
Perhaps that is why the best scenes of the movie are when he plays off Bergès-Frisbey. Their opposites-attract romance takes on the form of a philosophical debate between the two sides of a mind, and even if Cahill’s script is mostly in line with Ian’s straightforwardness, the camera and frame is as in love with Sofi as Ian is. Having appeared in few English-language films to date, Bergès-Frisbey’s delivery is as enthralling as her immediately highlighted eyelids. Like her character, the actress features the rare mutation of sectoral heterochromia, which allows her irises to have multiple colors all at once (including brown, green, blue, gray, and specs of gold). The literal poster of I Origins, these pupils are photographed by Cahill’s lens like a sea caught in a moment of perpetual sunset.
When coupled with Bergès-Frisbey channeling a quixotic presence of childlike wonder that lingers in every scene long after she’s exited the picture, audiences are left to genuinely believe Sofi’s first line of dialogue in the movie when Ian asks where she’s from: “Another planet.”
Unfortunately, the third aspect of the love triangle, played with effortless humanity by Marling, is left underdeveloped in comparison. While Karen may have more scenes, Cahill strangely leaves it on his Another Earth co-writer and star to flesh out the part of Ian’s true conspirator and equal. Together they chart a worm developing vision, and then even more remarkable discoveries as the picture advances. However, it is left to Marling’s more-than-capable abilities to flesh out Karen, which she does with every frayed smile that comes with three sleepless nights in the lab.
In those labs, I Origins remarkably relies on real science to excuse its eventual pseudo euphoria. Using real iris-recognition systems first developed in Cambridge—which Google and certain airports use the 12-digit code identification system now to track employees and travelers—I Origins posits that any person in history can be traced in this life (or their next). It even cleverly uses India as a third act backdrop since that nation’s government has begun using iris-recognition on millions of citizens.
Still, the movie doesn’t fully explore these intriguing threads until near that finale. As a narrative, it is somewhat disjointed since it advances in orchestral movements instead of a singular progression. For some audiences that might be mystifying, but that might be the point as Ian’s journey becomes its own larger mystery behind the biggest one of all. It’s not about chases or finding bodies, but solving a question that many intellectuals like Ian have stumbled upon for a millennia before. This isn’t a melodrama; it’s a case study that cuts to the heart of its focus like a scalpel.
However, the movie’s most enticing hypothesis is not even posed until the picture’s closing moments. The results could leave some audiences wishing this experiment went back to the lab for further study. And yet, the engrossing sense of discovery that any viewer should have alongside Ian when that fateful day comes in India is so profound and moving, that I couldn’t take my eyes off it. From that perspective, I Origins should be a vision worth having.