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Less Than Meets the Eye

by Ann Morrow on August 7, 2014

I Origins
Directed by Mike Cahill


The human eye: a window to the soul, inspiration for great poetry, evolutionary trump card and favored feature of advertising artists. In I Origins—yes, the title is used for all sorts of allegories—eyes are an obsession for Dr. Ian Gray (Michael Pitt), who apparently became a biomolecular scientist just so he could have a day job that was all about eyes. Taking Darwin’s rumination that the complexity of the human eye was proof of God’s existence, the film stylishly meanders through a hodgepodge of philosophical concepts while remaining completely earthbound. Ian meets a mysterious young girl (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) at a Halloween party, and even before they engage in a quickie in the bathroom, he has convinced himself that she is his soulmate, based on her multicolored irises.

I Origins

The romantic dilemma is that the girl runs off. It isn’t until much later, after Ian’s research work has been crisply redirected by his new lab partner, Karen (Brit Marling), that the universe leads him on mystical path to find her again–which he does. Her name is Sofi, she is a fashion model (hence the billboard of her eyes), and within days it seems, they are entwined for all time. Sofi, however, is spiritually ethereal in contrast to Ian’s stern rationalism, and her dreamy beliefs in higher powers only harden his drive to disprove the existence of God, which he attempts to do by building an arthropod eyeball from scratch. It’s a rather weighty topic for a gauzy romance set against the sterile environ of a cramped laboratory, yet for most of the film, writer-director Mike Cahill pulls it off (though Pitt is not the least bit believable as a brilliant researcher), and in its own leisurely way, the story builds some soft-focus suspense.

Sofi says things like, “Why are you torturing little earthworms?” which surely would’ve sealed her doom as Ian’s future wife even if serendipity did not intervene, in a contrived plot twist that leads to more noticeable lapses of logic.

The most damaging is a bit of medical duplicity that results in Ian traveling to India to find the exact match for Sofi’s unforgettable irises. This quest gives the universe ample opportunity to reveal its divinity, but like everything else in the film, the audience is way ahead of Ian on this point–and not just because of the cinematography’s slow though visually interesting observance of beauty in the mundane. And nothing is quite as mundane as Karen, who was already indispensable to Ian even before his tragic engagement (something else the audience clues into at least 30 minutes ahead of the plot).

Slick where it should be soulful, I Origins still manages to deliver on its premise, providing an unconvincing but nonetheless enjoyable uplift, its message wafting through the air as gently as a Petri dish of perfume.