The eyes are windows to the soul. That fuzzy bit of wisdom is repeated several times, with both reverence and skepticism, in "I Origins," Mike Cahill’s new film. Whatever that may mean, there’s no doubt that eyes are also the portals through which movies, good and bad, enter our consciousness. Considered strictly as a visual experience, this one, which might be described as a faith-based emo-science romance-thriller, is often quite beguiling.
This is partly a matter of casting. Michael Pitt and Brit Marling (the star and co-writer of "Another Earth," Cahill’s haunting debut) play Ian and Karen, blond genetic researchers who speak in earnest whispers and occasionally allow tears to fill their beautiful eyes. Speaking of which, and for good measure, Astrid Berghs-Frisbey shows up as Sofi, a mysterious, capricious young woman with stunning peepers who captures Ian’s heart and challenges his empiricist ideas about the world. He thinks that the experiment he and Karen are pursuing — they are trying to engineer the evolution of sight in blind worms — will decisively refute religious accounts of existence. Sofi favors a more mystical view and tries to convince Ian that he may be gifted with second sight.
For about half its running time, "I Origins" wanders suggestively and seductively through the lives of these three extremely attractive people, casting hints about what their activities might mean while spending a lot of time in bed with Ian and Sofi.
Cahill has a dreamy camera style and a subtle, elusive approach to storytelling, and for a while this casts an intriguing, melancholy spell. New York looks scruffy and gorgeous and bohemian, and so (at the risk of repeating myself) do Pitt and Berghs-Frisbey. Marling, too, but at this point, she’s mostly in the lab, while the others are on picturesque subway platforms and wind-tousled streets.
Then a lot of stuff happens that is mildly surprising in the moment and grindingly obvious in retrospect. Someone dies, a baby is born, anxious conversations are had, and the action shifts from New York to New Delhi (both exquisitely shot with a Red Digital camera by Markus Fōrderer, the cinematographer). In the midst of it all, the argument between spiritualism and science that has been hovering in the background becomes more explicit.
And also fairly embarrassing to partisans on both sides and ruinous to the movie’s sensuous, twee magic.
Ian’s conviction that the data he and Karen have assembled will end the debate is as simplistic and immature as the contrary notion (which gains force as the story advances) that supernaturalism could be experimentally proved. It’s possible that movies, which so often traffic in illusion, have an inherent bias toward the irrational. But it is usually better — as the middle career of M. Night Shyamalan conclusively demonstrates — to embrace supernaturalism at the level of effects rather than that of ideas.
"Another Earth" was a heartfelt entertainment that managed to infuse a tantalizing science-fiction premise with thought and feeling. "I Origins" is too committed to explaining itself to repeat the trick and falls into the trap of taking its daffy intellectual conceits far too seriously. It may blow your mind, but only if you’re not in the habit of using it.
Review by A.O. Scott, New York Times