Writer-director Mike Cahill made an impression with Another Earth, which used a science-fiction premise as the backdrop for a personal story. In his second feature, I Origins, the science-fictional premise is front and center — and you can see the downside of trying to tell a personal story about huge science-fiction ideas.
I'm going to avoid giving too many spoilers for I Origins here, but in a nutshell it's an off-kilter look at the science-vs-spirituality debate, with a lot of Richard Dawkins mixed in with a lot of New Age spirituality. And in order to try and tell a story of a scientist who confronts issues of the divine and spiritual transcendence, this movie includes some stuff that doesn't entirely make sense. Which is the problem with trying to build stories around "science versus faith" — in the end, you do justice to the rigor of science, or you succumb to the mushiness of faith. But it's hard to keep both things in balance in the same story.
In I Origins, Michael Pitt plays Ian, a molecular biologist with improbably great hair. And Ian has two passions: 1) disproving Intelligent Design by showing that the complexity of the human eye could have evolved through natural selection, and 2) a mysterious fashion model named Sofi, whom he meets and has sex with at a party. Sofi is a free spirit, a whimsical artsy type, who believes in reincarnation and stuff, and she and Ian have a sort of odd-couple relationship.
Easily the best part of the movie is the stuff involving Ian in his lab, doing science. Brit Marling, star of Another Earth, is back as Ian's lab assistant Karen, and she brings a welcome nerdy snark to the proceedings. There are long scenes of Ian and Karen discussing genetics and the possibility of "building" an eye from scratch, using different organisms, and they're fantastic. The laboratory banter feels very real and believable, and it's one of the best portrayals of science I've ever seen on the big screen.
If the whole movie had just been Ian and Karen making scientific breakthroughs together, while their relationship slowly develops, this could have been something really special and unusual.
Unfortunately, the storyline involving Sofi — who, as various people have pointed out, is the uber example of the Manic Pixie Dream girl archetype — falls horribly flat. You're never sure exactly why Ian and Sofi belong together, except that they're both really good looking. And later in the movie, when Ian gets drawn more into the realm of the supernatural, it gets a bit sillier. Some of the characters' decisions, and major plot developments, later in the film leave me somewhat bewildered.
And to a large extent, I Origins' attempt to balance a small character-centric personal story with a huge idea about the nature of evolution and reincarnation winds up overbalancing and toppling over. The ideas overwhelm the characters, and the plot becomes more important than the story — in much the same issue that a lot of Hollywood blockbusters are prone to.
(I had a similar problem with another big recent Sundance favorite, The Signal, which seemed to lose sight of its characters in its drive to delve into plot twists and reveals. It's weird to see small indie movies going in such a big-studio-tentpole direction.)
There's a lot of beautiful imagery in I Origins — Ian's obsession with the human eye causes him to photograph lots of eyes, up close, and this leads to lots of beautiful close-up shots of eyes. Cahill uses light and shadow to make the city look like a magical place, when Ian is out courting Sofi. And Pitt and Marling both give terrific performances.
But this film really shows the potential problem that can crop up when you try to tackle huge ideas in a small movie — you risk getting crushed by the weight of the ideas you're trying to hoist. Especially when it's a topic like science-and-faith, which is both overexposed and somewhat hackneyed at this point. I Origins tries to prove that there's room for both skepticism and spiritualism, but instead it serves to prove that the debate between the two is kind of overplayed in pop culture at this point.