Early in Mike Cahill's new sci-fi drama I Origins, molecular biologist Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) poses a question to a friend that becomes the driving force behind his vision quest: "Have you ever felt like you met someone that filled a hole inside you and when they left you felt painfully vacant?"
If you tend to get that feeling every time a film starring acclaimed actress-writer Brit Marling ends, you're already familiar with the consciousness-raising indie fare she's created in collaboration with her longtime friends and former Georgetown University classmates, writers-directors Cahill and Zal Batmanglij.
I Origins continues in that tradition. Although Marling did not contribute to this script, it certainly bears the hallmark of her 2011 feature debut with Cahill, Another Earth. But this time, the search for identity sends them on a different kind of outward journey.
Ian, engrossed in the evolution of the eye, meets a masked woman at a Halloween party at the film's outset. After an interrupted bathroom hookup, their night ends abruptly, leaving her smoldering greenish-gray eyes burnt deep into his subconscious. With that as Ian's only clue, he sets out to find her. But when they finally reconnect, their blossoming love meets tragedy. And thus begins the film's real premise.
I Origins is inspired in part by Cambridge University professor John Daugman's 1987 discovery that each human being possesses a unique iris. Cahill's speculative fiction plot suggests that scientific proof of reincarnation can be found in repeating iris patterns. In other words, the eyes truly could be the windows to the soul, a point the film repeatedly tries to make.
But that notion is almost smothered by the love story that weighs down the first third of the film. Ian's smart, blond lab assistant turned life partner Karen (portrayed by Marling) pushes him toward a new discovery that will ultimately require more faith, and frequent-flier miles, than scientific inquiry.
At its core, I Origins attempts to bridge the binary between evolution and creationism, science and spirituality. It's the kind of theory you desperately want to believe, but almost requires turning a blind eye to the Hollywood love story upon which it rests.
In an effort to hook moviegoers before taking the deep dive, Cahill winds up talking down to his audience. Still, a hint of his intelligent design lingers; Ian's doubt doubles as a stand-in for the more skeptical viewers, while Karen proves that faith without works is dead. Cahill even counters his own cinematic cliché, love at first sight, with the kind of unselfish bond that sustains Karen and Ian's enduring partnership.
While Pitt is the lead, don't be surprised if you find yourself wishing Marling had played a bigger role by the time the credits roll.