Someone at the preview screening of “I Origins” left 50 minutes into it, proclaiming the movie a bore and observing there were too many better things to do than endure the rest. That person was half right and half wrong: It got smarter, deeper and more touching in the second half, right after a stupefyingly silly event that lifted me halfway out of the seat myself.
Leading man Michael Pitt, who plays a skeptical scientist named Ian, remains blandly impassive until the last moments. But people and circumstances around him become more interesting as writer-director Mike Cahill develops his thesis: that we can’t write off the notion of a universal creator because we haven’t found proof one exists.
Ian works in a New York laboratory, trying to help colorblind rats see color by altering their genes. This could have a practical benefit to humankind, but he’s mainly trying to prove that the eye – which religious folks apparently use as evidence of unchanging “intelligent design” – can be made to evolve. His new lab assistant, Karen (Brit Marling), wants to try something more radical: to take a sightless blindworm and, by altering generations a bit at a time, enable it to see. No better proof that eyes evolve could be found.
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Meanwhile, Ian begins to date a model (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey). Where he’s earthbound, she’s elfin. Where he’s rational, she’s a romanticizer. Where he’s dull dull DULL DULL – sorry, I needed all four “dulls” – she’s fey and flighty, a creature of pure impulse. (Yes, opposites attract. But this is like a peacock being attracted to a mole.)
She can’t stay in his life long, of course. He’s better paired with the analytical, patient Karen, with whom he later has a son. A researcher wants to test the boy, claiming the infant shows signs of autism, but something much more complex is about to unfurl.
Marling gives the same low-key, intelligent performance in every film, including her last pairing with Cahill (“Another Earth”); it’s wearing thin, but it does suit Karen’s character. Bergès-Frisbey seems to have floated in from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but you can see why the stolid Ian would be drawn to her.
Acting matters a little less here when the writer-director wrestles with big ideas. He doesn’t come down firmly on either side of the argument until a sequence after the end credits, and then he leaves us in a place we didn’t think he’d go. He leaves us with questions, too, which is apt in this case.
The title refers not only to that search for the origins of the eye, which doesn’t amount to much, but to the quest to find out where the “I,” the inner self, comes from. When that begins, late in the game, the movie takes off and never comes down.