Writer-director Mike Cahill's 2012 science fiction debut "Another Earth" was a breakout Sundance hit that irked nearly as many people as it thrilled. Cahill's sappy narrative of soul-searching conundrums revolved around the sudden appearance of a planet identical to our own hanging in the sky, leading to gratingly self-serious conversations about identity and aspirations that prevented the intriguing premise from reaching its full potential. But at its best, "Another Earth" had the appeal of a classic "Twilight Zone" episode, infusing its ridiculous concept with allegorical depth.
Cahill's slicker follow-up, "I Origins" is more like a knock-off of "The X-Files" that grounds its preachy science-versus-faith battles in subtler moments. While still invested in grandiose swipes at big ideas and epistemological babbling, Cahill generates an authentic sense of mystery by denying the possibility of fully understanding the secrets of the universe.
Opening with a montage of retinas and the voiceover narration of its main character, lab researcher Ian Gray (Michael Pit), "I Origins" introduces "the eyes that changed the world." These sophisticated brown-turquoise peepers turned out to belong to Sofi (Astrid Bergés-Frisbey), an exotic foreigner living in New York City whom Ian encounters at a costume party, where only her eyes are visible beneath a mask. After a bathroom quickie, he later tracks the woman down to a subway, where he plays a song off his phone (the awe-inspiring "Dust It Off," by The Do), reminding her of the moment they met.
During its first act, "I Origins" shifts between their burgeoning romance and Ian's laboratory research — where, appropriately enough, he studies the evolution of eyeballs, while giving the cold shoulder to research assistant Karen (Brit Marling), a workaholic on the brink of a major discovery.
Ian's commitment to his research makes him the cold skeptic to Sofi's spiritual ponderings, yielding a conflict with simplistic connotations rendered with somewhat amusing results. (After she poetically describes the beauty of a white peacock, Ian points out that its lack of color stems from a genetic phenomenon.) Their exchanges establish a swooning tone that risks going over-the-top but constantly backs up from the ledge before the story takes a dark turn that takes Sofi out of the picture.
It's an effective twist that eventually gives new meaning to his research years down the line, when Ian and Karen — now successful partners still pursuing the eye's many complexities — accidentally make a discovery that hints at the possibility of tracking the human soul through its many lifespans. By studying an eye's distinctive characteristics as they're shared by newborns and recently deceased individuals, they begin to explore the supernatural prospects of shared traits.
In other words, "I Origins" is about a scientist pursuing the possibility of reincarnation, though Cahill's screenplay smartly avoids using that term.
By the time it gets there, "I Origins" maintains a moderate sense of intrigue that relies more on understatement than prolonged debate, foregrounding Ian's conflict over his investment in the project and exploring his internal struggles mainly by implication. That's not to say it lacks some annoying "Another Earth"-like stabs at deep thoughts ("It's dangerous to play god," Sofi says when Ian asserts he can create superficial eyes for blind worms), and the whole premise has blatantly silly undertones (especially if one considers why no past researchers could have made these discoveries before).
As the plot heads into its final act, the scientist's globe-spanning journey strains from a bland quality that favors the unknown over the prospects of a satisfactory resolution, although the eventual outcome is both tender and cryptic.
While not a monumental investigation into the heady concepts at its center, "I Origins" resembles the lyrical relationship to the universe experienced by its characters. Cinematographer Markus Forderer (whose high contrast images were the best thing about the post-apocalyptic German thriller "Hell") captures the shadowy cityscape to illustrate the impression of Ian's quest getting lost in a much larger puzzle. Marling is serviceably focused, but Pitt keeps the narrative grounded with grave expressions that are never as overblown as the narrative's grabs at profound themes.
Viewed on its own terms, the movie lacks enough sophistication to make its existential inquiry fully resonate, but it certainly benefits from comparisons to "Another Earth" by showing a more complete effort to sublimate its ideas into the storytelling process.
Beyond that, "I Origins" actually makes a considerable attempt to avoid the pratfalls of its predecessor. In one scene, Ian delivers a monologue worthy of eye-rolling dismissal when he talks about losing track of Sofi and says that he feels "painfully vacant." But he doesn't get away with it: "The way you just talked was poetic," his friend replies. "It was, like, weird." In such moments of self-awareness, "I Origins" acknowledges its potential to fall flat and, more often than not, nimbly side-steps the trappings of the material.
A version of this review ran during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. "I Origins" opens in limited release this Friday.