2011, the year of actress Brit Marling, also introduced the world of cinema to two promising filmmakers: “The Sound Of My Voice” director Zal Batmanglij and “Another Earth” filmmaker Mike Cahill. Marling starred and co-wrote both heady and high concept indie efforts and her rocket soon took off. Fox Searchlight picked up both films and Batmanglij was soon making his intriguing follow-up “The East.” Skeptics were a little less convinced about “Another Earth,” which featured an admittedly excellent concept but was sometimes limited by its budget and presentation in execution. However, those that sensed great promise should be thrilled to see it fulfilled in “I Origins,” Cahill’s powerful Sundance follow-up.
As the proverb goes, “the eyes are the window to the soul,” and that phrase feels like the blowtorch that sets “I Origins” alight for Cahill to investigate notions of spirituality vs. science, coincidence, chance and the unexplained subconscious working behind the curtain of existence. Michael Pitt stars as Ian Gray, a PhD student studying molecular biology with a focus on the eyes; his studies serving as a great metaphor for who may, or may not be, observing us. At a party he meets Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), a cute but mysterious French girl with striking and rare eyes who he asks to photograph (one of ongoing his pet projects). In a burst of inexplicable but powerful connection, they make love and then she vanishes.
Consumed with tracking her down, a series of coincidences lead (or guide?) Ian to Sofi, they meet cute and a whirlwind hipster romance begins in Brooklyn, replete with Radiohead songs. (This is far less obnoxious than it sounds and is actually quite beguiling, and sonically you are rewarded later on if you’re paying attention.) The two discover that they are polar opposites with Sofi, an intuitive and spiritual soul, and Ian, a proselytizing believer in hard facts and science. Meanwhile, at school, Ian pores over every facet of genetic maps with his diligent lab intern Karen (Brit Marling). Just as they are on the verge of a significant scientific breakthrough involving giving eyesight to blind worms, Sofi and Ian’s relationship is abruptly cut short.
Fast forward seven years into the future, Ian is now Dr. Ian Gray, has married Karen, and their theories of evolutionary development of the eye have been recognized worldwide. They are expecting their first child, and a series of precautionary autism tests on their son yield the kind of strange and inconsistent results that unlock something deep inside them and challenge their beliefs. In pursuit of the potentially unnerving truth, Ian treks halfway across the globe to India to confront the past with Sofi that is still haunting him.
An intelligent and ambitious adult drama in the vein of a young Christopher Nolan or Danny Boyle, “I Origins” really aspires for something grand, universal and deep, and it often achieves its goal. One could argue the entire picture is an exploration of the disconcerting sensation of déjà vu, and what it all means behind the curtain of the subliminal. Considering ideas of reincarnation, the afterlife and more, “I Origins” is a fascinating examination of belief, spirituality and otherworldliness through the skeptical lens of science, however, it’s not always perfect. Some of the faith vs. science themes are a little too on the nose, the transition in relationship isn’t as elegant as it could be and some of the plot conceits—a temporary blindness, a tragedy—are a little contrived and strain suspension of disbelief.
But “I Origins” eventually overcomes its occasional not-entirely-convincing elements. While you’re almost watching two different movies, bifurcated by its two lead women, how the two eventually complement each other is very satisfying. A great moody score and a terrific, deeply moving and near awe-inspiring finish scored to Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack” may also make you forgive and forget some of the movie’s smaller problems. Additionally, a post-credits sequence only adds to the fascinating intrigue of the picture, consequently putting all similar superhero/tentpole teasers to shame with their banality (though expect some potentially deal-breaking arguments here).
Tackling the big questions of the universe, the secret, silent moments going on behind all things that we sense but cannot explain, “I Origins” is the logical extension of what Cahill did with “Another Earth.” If his debut was an auspicious and intriguing opening shot with an excellent premise that didn’t quite follow through, then “I Origins” is the fully-formed expression of all of Cahill’s ambitious ideas. It also cements him as the real deal; a filmmaker who will hopefully continue to take us to places full of mystery, wonder and awe. [B+]