“I Origins” puts the eyes in sci-fi, recasting human peepers — those proverbial windows to the soul — as the key to so much more than philosophers, scientists or fashion photographers had ever previously considered. In the vein of such divisive cult favorites as “Primer” and “Upstream Color,” Mike Cahill’s crazy-ambitious sophomore feature (after “Another Earth”) refuses to let a modest budget constrain its larger-than-life-itself concept, cramming everything from the existence of God to a new, all-encompassing theory of reincarnation into the guise of a sexy, globe-trotting detective movie that very nearly collapses under the weight of its own mumbo-jumbo.
Add Michael Pitt to the list of the world’s least convincing scientists, as the pouty-lipped dreamer plays Ian Gray, a molecular biology lab student obsessed with disproving the concept of intelligent design by demonstrating that eyes — those most elegantly complex of organs — could have evolved over a series of 12 discreet steps. (Never mind that Richard Dawkins rather elegantly beat him to it as far back as 1986.)
Ian’s approach is so shaky that it takes his new research assistant (Brit Marling, who sounds a lot more convincing in a lab coat than her co-star does) all of five minutes to dismantle his work to date and suggest a new line of study: They should locate a sightless organism with the PAX6 gene and manipulate it, effectively trying to “build an eye from scratch.”
Ian’s experiments are little more than a cover for his personal eye fetish anyway. As he explains over a mesmerizing montage of beautifully textured irises (his personal photo collection), Ian has been snapping strangers’ eyes since he got his first camera as a kid. At a murky college costume party, he spots a mysterious woman covered head-to-hips in black stockings, falls in love with her multi-colored eyes and then loses her after a hasty shag in a downstairs bathroom.
Ian doesn’t believe in fate or luck, so how will this sullen skeptic find his heterochromic Cinderella again? Lo, fate smiles almost immediately on his search, with the universe using a series of significant “elevens” to point him to a billboard featuring a pair of giant eyes — a symbol so loaded it makes even “The Great Gatsby’s” T.J. Eckleburg sign seem subtle by comparison. Turning to Google, Ian discovers the stranger’s identity: She’s a model named Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), and as luck would have it, he spots her on the subway, reflected in a window with an unsubtle infinity symbol etched into the glass.
Rather than recap the rest of the plot, suffice it to say that Ian and Sofi are reunited, enjoying a French New Wave-style love affair that ends rather suddenly in a freight elevator. From here on, the film amounts to a series of revelations designed to blow people’s minds, but Cahill unveils each twist in such dramatic slow-motion that viewers seem to be ahead of him every step of the way. The movie is complex enough that many will want to watch it again, but being able to anticipate nearly all the major plot points (not from the outset, but minutes before they transpire) lends even the first viewing a peculiar sense of deja vu. Call it “I Obvious.”
In the interest of minimizing spoilers, let’s return to the example of the “lucky elevens”: Ian walks into a 7-Eleven and buys a lottery ticket. The clerk gives him $11.11 in change. He gazes down at the receipt, and the time reads 11:11:11. A No. 11 bus pulls up to the curb. Everyone watching recognizes something important is about to occur, and yet Cahill drags out the moment for dramatic impact. It’s enough to give you goosebumps the first time it happens, but after the fifth or sixth such example in a succession that leads right up until the final scene, those tingles give way to tedium. Worse, the tactic makes Ian seem agonizingly slow-witted (as in the “Dairy Farm” scene).
On one hand, Cahill’s key themes — love, faith, reincarnation — offer substantially meatier ideas to work with than your typical studio picture: What if there are a finite number of souls in the universe? Could the love of your life be reborn in another form? Could Hitler? Does reincarnation prove or disprove the existence of God? Do hypothetical questions drive you crazy? “I Origins” engages with all of these issues and more, gradually transforming the skeptic into the believer (a recurring arc in Marling’s recent movies, including last year’s “The East”).
And yet, the film amounts to a lousy sort of magic show, schematically pulling strings to prove its own points. Though presented as a thinking man’s thriller, “I Origins” instead asks intelligent auds to dive deep, while insisting that they overlook its more glaring plot holes. It passes off pseudoscience as philosophy and a passionate montage as true love, lacquering a hit-and-miss visual package with mood music and an overdesigned sound mix. In yet another twist on its title, this origin story leaves things open-ended for either sequels or spinoffs, as audiences demand.