I Origins is a logical next step for writer/director Mike Cahill, who explored the possibility of meeting one's self in his debut feature, Another Earth. Cahill is the kind of filmmaker who's interested in life's bigger queries: Who are we, and where did we come from? I Origins tackles the second question. The film's a savvy investigation of scientific and faith-based philosophy that plays out in an ordinary context. Cahill has a unique ability to explore the unexplorable with a small scope.
I Origins begins ordinarily, at a Halloween party where Ian (Michael Pitt) meets a masked stranger (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) out on the patio. Her eyes catch his attention and he asks to photograph them. He's been doing this since he was a teen. Soon, she's pushing him into a bathroom to have sex, but just as quickly she's gone. Ian is left with nothing but her eyes.
The sense of sight is a major motif of I Origins. The eyeball in particular is the fulcrum on which the story's two plot lines merge and pivot. Cahill's interest in irreducible complexity was likely his starting point. That argument, which essentially states the human eye is too complex to have been evolved from lesser organisms, is the villain of the film.
Ian is a molecular biologist earning a Ph.D. by studying eye evolution. He's an atheist to the core who stresses the importance of facts over assumptions to his new lab partner, Karen (Brit Marling). Ian hypothesizes he can prove evolution once and for all if he can just trace the human eye's evolution back to an origin species. Karen sets about cataloguing hundreds of thousands of possible animals in pursuit.
While this is going on, Ian's life is about to be undone. Via a series of coincidences (or fate?) the scientist finds those eyes from the party. They're on a billboard in the city and Ian soon learns his mystery girl's name through Google. Sofi is a model and Ian tries staking out her favorite coffee shop, but to no avail. It's only when he stops looking that he finds her on the subway one day. There's electricity between them and Ian doesn't let her get away again.
Ian and Sofi's torrid love affair is a paradox. She's spiritual and he's not, but the sex is fantastic. Ian overlooks the fact his new girl doesn't exactly understand the work he's doing at the lab, much less agree with it. And through a series of events that finds them rushing off to City Hall to get married, rushing off to the lab because Karen has found the origin species, and then rushing home because Ian is temporarily blinded, Sofi is killed in a horrific accident. Cahill, who also wrote the script, is imploring us to question our beliefs. It's hard to deny the fact seemingly meaningless life events can alter the course of the future. Like if one kiss never happened, Sofi might still be alive. So who's in control? Is fate working overtime, or does shit simply just happen?
The death of Sofi also begs questions outside the philosophical realm: How does one recover from unimaginable tragedy? After the accident, Ian devolves into a lower life form. He destroys his memories of her and sinks into deep depression. Is it insane to become self-destructive? How would you react if life swallowed you whole?
The third act of I Origins takes a sharp turn away from what's preceded it. Cahill flash forwards seven years into the future. Ian has survived the aftermath of Sofi's death and is now married to Karen, who's pregnant. He's a successful author and the happy couple live comfortably after their monumental discovery in the lab. When their son is born, however, Ian and Karen discover, through a scientific test, that the baby recognizes images of real people and places. Could their son be the reincarnation of a dairy farmer who just passed away? This weighty question takes the film to its dramatic conclusion as Ian travels to India to prove two people can have the same pair of eyes, which, in turn, could prove reincarnation and the existence of God.
While I Origins doesn't take time to fully explore its more complicated ideas about science and religion, it doesn't need to. Long expository sequences hinder films like this. Whether the science works or doesn't work isn't the point. It's about the revelation everything we know can be untrue. It's a cautionary tale about the dangers of playing God. And it's a testament that love, in any shape, can be more powerful than science or religion. It's the one human concept that needs no scientific proof because everyone wants to believe in it. Everyone.