In Mike Cahill’s I Origins, molecular biologist Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) repeatedly states his intention to disprove Intelligent Design by successfully tracing the evolutionary development of the eye; he conceives of spirituality and science as directly oppositional systems, a true/false binary that he has the tools to resolve. (It’s no surprise to find him, in one of the film’s earlier scenes, sullenly reading Richard Dawkins alone in a café.) Gray’s sky-high ambitions, however admirable, preclude any sense of nuance or ambiguity, a problem shared by Cahill’s film, which treats its characters as placeholders for philosophical arguments and spends the majority of its running time trying to “solve” existential mysteries without adequately exploring them.
I Origins opens with an address to these existential mysteries via Ian’s brooding voiceover (set to a luminous montage of extreme close-ups of eyes), but the plot begins in earnest with a rote boy-meets-girl setup. Obstinate skeptic Ian meets his match in Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), a free-spirited model whose multi-colored eyes spark Gray’s interest at a Brooklyn costume party. Fueled by an unlimited but vaguely defined religious fervor, Sofi recalls Olga Kurlyenko’s forever-twirling character in To the Wonder, only with a more urban edge. The romance that blossoms between the pair consists mostly of childish philosophical arguments whenever they aren’t wrapped in each other’s arms. This overstated disparity makes it clear that, for Ian, Sofi is a physical manifestation of spirituality itself: elusive, tantalizing, and—depicted as she is not as a real person, but as a one-dimensional stand-in for an idea—difficult to accept as real.
Despite devoting roughly half its running time to Ian and Sofi’s relationship, I Origins is ultimately not a romance, or at least, not only a romance: As the plot advances, Cahill’s film reveals new incarnations of itself in a variety of genre trappings—sci-fi parable, grisly medical drama, globe-trotting thriller, and even, in one bizarre and possibly genius scene, a Saw-esque horror flick. A chronological leap advances the narrative seven years, and the reckless romanticism of the film’s first half drops away to reveal a chillier, calmer work focused more explicitly on scientific inquiry. Sofi is out of the picture, and Ian is now expecting his first child with research partner turned wife Karen (Brit Marling). The birth of their son triggers a series of medical and existential revelations, slowly teasing out the possibility of an immortal soul transferred from human to human via—what else?—the eyes. Thus I Origins arrives at its true purpose as a chronicle of transformation, a document of one man’s slow journey from skeptic to believer.
Such a reversal of conviction and philosophy, from a character who spends the majority of his screen time as a walking, talking billboard for atheism, would be nearly impossible for any two-hour film to pull off; that I Origins even attempts such a thing is laudatory, and the results are often fascinating. But Cahill’s script strains under its own weight, consistently simplifying its ideas to fit a climax that delivers plenty of “aha!” moments at the expense of clarity or credulity. Without giving too much away, the film culminates in a sequence of ideological ping pong in which an arbitrary test convinces—and then un-convinces, and then re-convinces—Ian and Karen of the existence of Something Greater in a matter of minutes. Cahill is a wiz at amping up dramatic portent in the moment, but any pathos is undermined by his characters’ regression into ciphers. Lines like “I didn’t ask you what you thought, I asked you how you felt” state aloud what need only be implied, until Ian and Karen resemble less molecular biologists than audience members commenting on their own emotional whiplash.