Mike Cahill’s sci-fi drama I Origins opens with a wonderful, lyrical burst of wonkiness before turning into a soggy art-house version of Heaven Is for Real. I was especially sad watching it sink into the woo-woo because Another Earth, Cahill’s previous collaboration with actress Brit Marling, was on a tantalizing border between psychological sci-fi mystery and New Age corn. I Origins suggests that Cahill’s sympathies are firmly on the side of the sillies. He’s a talented storyteller, so it’s a loss.
I Origins starts with a montage of eyes, of pupils expanding under a camera’s flash, each one — as the scientist narrator, Ian (Michael Pitt), explains — unique and revealing. It turns out that Ian’s mission is to find a certain missing eyeball link that will “end the debate” between creationists and Darwinians. He wants to prove for all time that the notion of “intelligent design” is bogus. His new research assistant, Karen (Marling), is unusually driven. All day and all night, she tests various [SCIENCE STUFF] on worms, thus demonstrating [SCIENCE STUFF]. It’s too technical for me, but I was gripped. Though a rationalist, Ian is not immune to the uncanny. He becomes obsessed with the distinctive, brown-flecked eyes of a masked, slinky woman he meets — and loses — at a Halloween party. Through a bizarre series of repetitions of the number 11, he discovers that she’s an amazingly cute model named Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). In their love nest, she tells him she has the feeling that she has known him from a previous life. He scoffs but can’t deny the presence of something.
That’s the triangle: scientist, cute-nerdy assistant, and super-hot soul mate (though Ian refuses to believe in the concept of a soul) who sees God in nature, particularly a white peacock. The more unresolved the triangle was, the more intriguing I found the movie. Close-ups of eyes really are cool. There’s an exciting place where the Higher Math bleeds into spirituality that fuels a lot of pop sci-fi, and Cahill strikes me as the kind of guy who in college must have gotten high with his science-nerd buddies and spent long nights speculating on mathematical coincidence and the existence of the multiverse. I figured he was open to both sides of the science-versus-faith debate — hence, the drama. But there’s a lot of pressure, even in American indie movies, to locate God — hence, the dopey last act. The problem with directors who set out to prove that heaven is for real is that they can rig the game any old way they please. There’s no accounting for mindless piety.
The grubby Pitt is unexpectedly convincing as an absentminded professor, and Berges-Frisbey is like a sultry embryo — half sex-kitten, half alien star-child. Marling, alas, muzzles her charisma to make Karen as different as possible from Sofi. I Origins really loses its oomph when Ian travels to India in search of a particular pair of eyeballs, and the movie closes on a note that would make even M. Night Shyamalan roll his own. Up to the very last second, though, I was hoping Cahill would pull out of his skid, which means I haven’t entirely lost my belief in him. I might not subscribe to reincarnation, but I have an abiding faith in the religion of auteurism.