I Origins is an exercise in supreme obviousness, beginning (but not ending) with its double entendre of a title. The film opens with a narrated gallery of pupils, unblinking orbs staring straight into the lens. Those staring back will quickly gather that, yes, this is a story about ocular origins. The “I” with the interest in eyes is Dr. Ian Gray (Michael Pitt), a molecular biologist out to disprove intelligent design by tracing the evolution of iris patterns. “I’m looking to end the debate once and for all,” he says early on, practically licking his lips at the prospect of silencing the world’s numerous believers. His certainty is, of course, its own form of dogma—a point that the movie helpfully underlines at every turn. Will the rationalist’s convictions waver? An aura of mystical awe, coupled with the sheer pigheaded arrogance of the hero, portends a comeuppance. Anyone with, well, a set of eyes should have no trouble seeing where things are headed.
Mike Cahill, the mastermind of this hokey reason-versus-faith parable, has experience in the field of the fantastic. His debut, Another Earth, introduced a fascinating Twilight Zone premise—the appearance of a celestial body, identical to our own—and then reduced it to nothing more than a planet-sized metaphor, the window dressing on a very ordinary drama of guilt and redemption. I Origins doesn’t squander its high concept quite as thoroughly—there’s a better payoff at least—but it still couches it in indie-movie clichés.
The film actually doubles as a love triangle, planting Pitt’s hipster rationalist between a superstitious mystery waif, Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), and a fellow skeptic, his lab partner Karen (Another Earth star Brit Marling, more convincing than her co-star in a white coat). Sofi is an impossibly accommodating dream girl, a globetrotting fashion model who falls for the moodiest, most condescending geek she’s probably ever encountered. Ian meets her at a costume party, where he’s drawn immediately to her unique peepers; after fooling around in a bathroom, the two part ways without exchanging numbers, but eventually find each other through a series of grand cosmic coincidences. Their subsequent relationship unfolds like a New Wave parody, the two canoodling in endless montage—that is, when they’re not playfully sparring about spirituality. (He’s an atheist. She’s a Buddhist, sort of. They make it work.)
Around the midway mark, I Origins abruptly severs ties with one of its characters, in a way that’s wince-worthy on a couple of levels. From here, it morphs into a kind of sci-fi detective story—a direction that would prove more promising were it not predicated on a mystery many viewers will solve a good hour before the characters do. The film’s second half is a slow-motion reveal, inching with agonizing delay to a predictable final doozy. For those who guess the grand design, there will be little to do but wait for stubborn, myopic Ian to catch up. I Origins is arted-up twist cinema at its most self-important, building to an ending that’s designed to blow minds but doesn’t pack any of the emotional wallop it should. Eyes that haven’t fluttered shut will simply roll. Point them at a different movie.