It begins as a science thriller: Researchers narrow in on absolute proof that the eye evolved in nature. Such confirmation would give the lie to creationists who sometimes use the complexity of the eye as evidence for an "intelligent designer," which is another way of saying God. Alas, I Origins has more than science on its mind—it wants to pick fruit from The Tree of Life and other such exercises in magical hugger-mugger.
Molecular biologist Ian Gray (Michael Pitt, from Last Days) and his gifted intern Karen (Brit Marling) do the lab work; meanwhile, the supremely rational Ian indulges in a whirlwind affair with exotic Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey). She has uniquely patterned eyes, European manners, and beaucoup de hotness, so he is forgiven for tossing aside his usual scholarly method. A drastic plot twist jumps us forward seven years, and once again the rationalists are forced to examine their atheistic beliefs—as they so often are in movies.
Although I found all this to be fundamentally silly, I should say that writer/director Mike Cahill is clearly a talented filmmaker; his 2011 debut Another Earth was shaky on the sci-fi but genuinely haunting nonetheless. Here the hothouse world of super-focused scientists is convincing, and the staging of the sequence where Ian relocates Sofi (through a series of mystical coincidences) is technically accomplished. Pitt has matured into a leading-man presence, and Marling—the star and co-writer of Another Earth—is fittingly brainy, and also lighter and looser than she was in that previous film. If Cahill applied his skills to a movie that didn’t strain quite so hard to be significant, he could make a crackling genre picture.
The longer I Origins goes on, the more it encourages eye-rolling. Along with its obligatory journey to India and its theological ponderings, the film also presents a sequence with a grown man picking up a child on a foreign street and taking her alone to his hotel room—we know his purposes are innocent, but somebody hasn't thought through the optics here. And speaking of optics, the title I Origins is, I fear, meant to be a pun on "eye," which reduces the film’s metaphysical ideas to a glib play on words. So the movie has the title it deserves. Opens Fri., July 25 at Meridian and Sundance. Rated R. 113 minutes.