Film Review: I Origins

This unfinished-feeling, lovesick fantasy from the maker of <i>Another Earth</i> pairs a fatalistic romance with a fuzzy-headed take on the science-vs.-religion debate.

A haunted-looking Michael Pitt is the main attraction in Mike Cahill’s curious fandango of a science-fantasy story about fate, destiny, genetics and love, and that’s unfortunate. Pitt can usually excel when playing dreamers or tortured types befitting his sensuously languorous mien. Artists, sadists, gangsters with poetic souls, these all make sense. But for I Origins, Pitt has to put on a sweater, adjust his glasses, and play a molecular biologist. The good thing is, he’s supposed to be a molecular biologist stuck in an agonizing love triangle, so that tendency of Pitt’s to drift away as though his thoughts were elsewhere makes sense. But for the many scenes that call for a sense of true obsession, he can’t quite summon the proper focus, deploying a Johnny Depp-like dourness. Without that, an already disjointed film drifts further apart.

Pitt’s Ian Gray is introduced as something of a grind, who spends all his working hours in a lab trying to breed color-blind mice. It’s an unusual way to disprove the existence of God, but that’s his ultimate purpose. As Ian explains to his new lab assistant Karen (Brit Marling, hypnotically intense as always), he’s looking for a so-far missing genetic link that will allow him to prove that even as sophisticated a biological mechanism as the eyeball could have developed by evolution alone (creationists having long claimed that the eye’s very complexity is proof of the existence of a creator).

While Karen and Ian labor away—the initially brusque Ian quickly realizing that Karen is also a brilliant researcher—he spends his nights pursuing one of those marvelously cinematic dead-end romances. Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, an initially bewitching but eventually blank presence) is the story’s manic pixie dream girl there to provide the pulsating literary Old World heart to Karen and Ian’s just-the-facts rationality. Ian has a lusty meet-cute with a masked Sofi at a party and manages to snap photos of her gorgeously color-flecked eyes (a researcher’s habit) before she runs off into the night. He then tries to hunt her down, only finding her after a sequence of numerological oddities leads him to seeing a billboard with her eyes on it (the fingerprint-unique character of irises is threaded through the film as a scientific constant).

Once Ian and Sofi are together, the film falls into an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-like drifting dream of love. It’s clear that the whole thing will end badly once the sex stops. In the manner of beautiful people used to wonderful things just happening to them, she specializes in spontaneity and a loose-limbed, vague spirituality. (In perhaps not the most original cinematic visual shorthand, writer-director Cahill signposts their differences by having her wear fishnets and a leather jacket while the square Ian always looks like he’s heading to an academic symposium.) Their worldviews clash when Ian brings Sofi to the lab after Karen calls him about a research breakthrough. While the scientists celebrate, Sofi looks askance at the scene, like a child whose doll was just broken: “You leave me every day to come here and torture worms?”

Not long after, an absurd accident leaves Ian single and lovelorn, but still ready to fall right into a predestined relationship with the devoted Karen. Several years and one more gigantic coincidence later, they find that their assumptions about the faith/science divide and the uniqueness of irises could be less rock-solid than they had thought. It all leads to a final act set in India that strives for a graceful epiphany but results only in a muddled conclusion, with an admittedly fascinating post-credits stinger that feels more like the teaser for the next X-Men film than anything else.

As Cahill showed with his earlier Marling collaboration Another Earth, he is not afraid to throw out big ideas and big emotions. He appears to want to place this film in between the Ian/Karen and Sofi antipodes, to strive for a worldview that marries spirituality and science (something akin to what Ray Bradbury posited an advanced alien race had achieved in his similarly idealistic The Martian Chronicles). But the weight of the story continually falls upon the well-matched Karen and Ian, who frankly make a stronger case for their side of things than the flighty Sofi. Her character doesn’t make sense in the story except as a driver for Ian’s heartbreak, which is itself never convincingly portrayed so that the story’s disjointed elements could cohere in the way that Marling’s operatic gloom tied the even more preposterous Another Earth together. Without that glue, I Origins is little more than a deeply felt but confused curiosity.

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