“I Origins” looks like a hard-edged science drama, but it’s really a New Age fantasy — and an engaging one, especially in its early scenes. This has fooled some people, notably those who awarded the film the Alfred P. Sloan science-movie prize at Sundance. True, there’s a lot of lab jargon and scenes of people in white coats staring at dials and tubes. Ultimately, though, the movie’s about what we don’t know yet devoutly wish to be true, and it ends up feeling awfully woolly-headed.
On the other hand, how many films make people in lab coats look as hot and as hip as they do here? Dr. Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) is a broody, intense young neurobiologist whose specialty — and lifelong obsession, as he explains in voice-over — is the human eye and its iris patterns. No two are alike, we learn; “each is their own universe.”
An encounter with a masked beauty at a Manhattan Halloween party leaves Ian smitten and searching for a pair of startling green irises. Lucky for him, Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) is a professional model whose eyes on a local billboard are almost as big as Dr. T. J. Eckleburg’s. When he re-encounters her by chance on the subway, he sneaks up behind her and slips his headphones over her ears so she’ll know if his taste in burbling Euro-pop renders him suitable for mating. Ah, modern romance.
Rapturous love montages ensue, as do feverish debates about his rationality and her belief in the spirit world. With the help of bespectacled first-year student Karen (Brit Marling), Ian is attempting to grow rudimentary sight organs in the lab to counter religious arguments that only the Almighty could have created something as complex as an eye. “Zo you’re trying to dees-prove God?” Sofi asks in an accent intended to make her sound like an adorable free spirit instead of a superstitious dingbat.
The conversation may or may not be worth having; it’s what “I Origins” does with it that slowly but steadily turns mind-blowing or laughable, depending on where you stand on such issues as the transmigration of souls. The writer-director is Mike Cahill, whose breakthrough feature, 2011’s “Another Earth” — written with and starring Marling — was a similar (and stronger) mix of pseudo-science and poetry. That film was hung up on metaphysics, whereas “I Origins” gets hamstrung by melodrama and the unromantic spadework filmmakers have to do to get us to believe their tales.
Cahill’s script puts the characters through so many changes that there’s not much past the film’s first third I can talk about without spoiling the game. A tragedy, arriving out of the blue and clumsily presented, divides “I Origins” in half, after which we join Ian several years later, apparently settled in life and career. An investigation into a global data bank of human iris patterns leads to a discovery that May Change Life As We Know It, and suddenly the hero is in India, asking a nice young social worker (Archie Panjabi) to help him locate a little girl with spooky green eyes.
As a director, Cahill’s a capable and sometimes breathtaking stylist, and he accomplishes remarkable things on a modest budget, topping up the visuals with patterns, rhymes, and concordances. But despite the post-doctoral double-talk in “I Origins,” the movie’s faith remains in the mysteries of the cosmos, and it all starts to feel a little wet. You can actually see the narrative planking holding the story together; the character of an evangelical businessman (William Mapother) is introduced only, one realizes in retrospect, so another character won’t get onto an elevator.
The movie’s point — and it’s hard to argue with — is that our knowledge of the universe is limited by our five dull senses and that only a fool (or a scientist) could fail to be humble in the face of such limitations. Yet the harder “I Origins” strains for meaning, the more it fails to convince. There’s less to Cahill’s grand speculations than meets the eye.