It’s a natural human yearning to want to get to the bottom of something — to chase a story all the way back to where it began. Michael Pitt, taking the lead as molecular biologist Ian Gray in Mike Cahill’s new film “I Origins,” just seems to have a more advanced case of it than most.
The film opens with Ian’s quest to essentially disprove God by proving that human eyes are purely a result of evolution and not any kind of creationist miracle. He and his brilliant lab partner, Karen — played with a sparkling ferocity by Brit Marling, who also starred in 2011’s “Another Earth” — begin with a search for the PAX6 gene required to grow eyes in blind, low-level organisms. As they discover more and more about the spiritual and biological importance of the eye, however, Cahill’s story peels off from the expected sci-fi film stereotype into a story that is all at once unexpectedly funny, gripping and human.
Pitt plays the lead well, but it is his two female co-stars who really capture the screen: Marling as the J. Crew model-esque Karen and Astrid Berges-Frisbey as the equally enchanting and exasperating Sofi. Karen and Sofi guide him, a little like a metal ball in a pinball machine, as Ian treks. He undertakes a journey that ranges from New York to Idaho to India and back again, where he finds a middle ground between Sofi’s excessive — and, at times, eye-rolling — spirituality and Karen’s practical, scientific approach.
Sofi is excellent as a catalyst character but otherwise fails to inhabit the realm of a real, believable person: She flits around wearing a huge evil-eye pendant, and obsessing over a white peacock in a zoo, but she otherwise fails to connect with the real world. Even Ian, who loves her desperately, says to Sofi, “You live in this fairy magical fantasy land.”
Karen and Ian also lack in character development, but the story ultimately carries itself along well enough regardless. One almost gets the impression that Cahill dreamed his story so big he left no room to explore the people living it onscreen.
“I Origins” anchors itself in New York City, but the particular location doesn’t really matter. Cahill’s exquisite visuals are, at times, a love song that could be sung about any city. With his lens flares, occasional shaky camera and deft use of coloring, his New York City feels real, anchoring this rather far-fetched premise well. It could be any city in which Ian, like all of us, is loving and losing and growing and grieving. But when Cahill holds the zoom on a dramatic, life-changing moment shown on Pitt’s face for a moment too long or when the roller coaster of chances and coincidences align a little too much, the film tips dangerously into the realm of artifice — a beautiful artifice though it is.
Cahill’s directorial vision and Markus Forderer’s cinematography propel the film into the realm of the stunning, but it’s Phil Mossman and Will Bates’s musical compositions that keep it there. Sparse and atmospheric, the soundtrack and cinematography partly provide the feeling and emotion that Cahill’s somewhat 2-D characters lack. As it has been purchased for limited distribution by Fox Searchlight Pictures, some would argue that “I Origins” cannot be labeled truly “independent,” but in its plot, cinematography and music, it feels like a film that would be out of place with any other description.
At its essence, “I Origins” is about chance and fortune. It’s about detailing how there are things in the universe that deeply affect people’s lives and yet on which those people can have no effect. It has a plot so scientifically and spiritually crazy that it’s hard to believe in. For those who can blieve, at certain moments it feels like maybe, maybe, in this alternate universe of a setting, the picture “I Origins” paints might be true.
“I Origins” opens this Friday at Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.
Contact Tyler Allen at [email protected].