"The eyes are the windows to the soul." This particular cliché forms the narrative and philosophical basis of Mike Cahill's latest, I Origins, which follows in the high-concept, indie sci-fi vein of his first feature, Another Earth (2004).
The title also has a rather obvious pun embedded within: "I" = "eye," get it? And true to this idea, the film itself is full of eyes, beginning with the visually arresting opening sequence, a montage of eye close-up photos, which race by as the scientist protagonist Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) relates his lifelong obsession with eyes.
He has photographed countless numbers of them over the years, and has made this the basis of his scientific research. His life's mission is to use his analysis of the evolutionary mechanisms of eye formation to disprove once and for all, he hopes, the idea of intelligent design as a plausible alternative to evolution. As a strict rationalist and atheist, given to poring over Richard Dawkins tomes in bars, he sets out to end this debate.
The first half of the film backs up about seven years to show us Ian's life in New York City as a Ph.D. student studying molecular biology. He attends a hipster Halloween party rather unimaginatively dressed in a lab coat, where he meets a mysteriously attractive woman wearing leather and a silky black face mask which only exposes her eyes. These are a rather stunning set of eyes that Ian adds to his photo collection. Their attraction is quite mutual, so much so that they're about to get down and dirty in a bathroom when the woman, spooked by Ian's attempts to learn more about her beyond this lusty sexual encounter, suddenly jumps off him and takes off in a cab.
Unable to get this woman off his mind, Ian sets out to find her. After a sequence of events built around successive coincidental incidents based on the number "11," he is led to a huge billboard, a cosmetic ad that features the same set of eyes he encountered at the party. Embarking on a Google search based on these eyes, Ian finds out that the woman is a model named Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), and, in yet another of the film's shameless contrivances, the just happens to see her riding the subway. They recognize each other as soon as their eyes meet. Sofi tries to run away from him again, but he catches up with her, and they bond over a dreamy song that plays on his headphones, which they end up sharing. And so begins a passionate, whirlwind romance.
Meanwhile, Ian's academic and research life gets shaken up with the arrival of another beautiful woman in his life: Karen (Brit Marling), his new lab assistant. She turns out to be no mere protégé, but also a rather brilliant scientific mind, who shortly after meeting him points out the many holes in Ian's research and suggests a new focus: using sightless worms to build eyes from scratch and thus demonstrate the molecular evolution of eyes. Ian is oddly unfazed by having his work up to that point so utterly dismantled, by a first-year med student, no less, probably because he is so wrapped up with his romance with Sofi. Ian more or less leaves the heavy lifting of the research to Karen.
Thereafter, a dramatic narrative twist occurs midway through the film, one which I'll be kind enough not to divulge here. Suffice it to say that this occurrence, along with other subsequent events, challenges Ian's atheistic views, and the scientific research he has conducted begins to point to a much more spiritual and metaphysical way of seeing the universe, in both literal and metaphorical terms. The journey this sets Ian on involves a death, a baby's birth, and retina DNA research which eventually takes him to New Delhi, India, where the film's mysteries are eventually resolved.
There are many aspects of I Origins that are all kinds of wrong. For starters, for a film which makes frequent use of nearly impenetrable scientific jargon, especially in the lab scenes, it proves to be rather stupefying in its naïveté about science, and in its idea that one man's research could end debate forever on a topic. Also, the narrative is so baldly dependent on contrivance and coincidence that it can seem nearly comical.
And yet, the film's glaring flaws, and there are many, are only obvious in retrospect. This is a testament to Cahill's skill at hoodwinking us into buying the narrative's contrived twists, at least in the moment. Cahill adopts a Terrence Malick-like visual and metaphysical mood that, while it lacks the overwhelming artistry of Malick, still manages to create a spell that short-circuits one's senses of rationality and envelops one in its romantic and mystical atmosphere. This is greatly aided by the overpowering attractiveness of its three leads - Pitt, Marling, and Berges-Frisbey prove to be very seductive in their performances, lulling us into nearly total acceptance of the ludicrous scenario in which they play the starring roles.
Just like certain action spectacles where you're best advised to check your brain at the door, I Origins represents the gentler, more earnest indie version of the same. If you don't ask too many questions, or demand too much logical consistency, you'll enjoy it just fine. And also, stick around after the end credits for the story's final kicker, which brings home the full, and rather disturbing, implications of the film's scenario.