Ian is a man of science. But he is still a man. And when a model-thin hottie with a strange accent comes on to him in a party, the nerdy guy whose “Can I take a picture of your eyes?” is no pick-up line, is smitten.
Ian, played by Michael Pitt of “Boardwalk Empire” and “Seven Psychopaths,” becomes obsessed. He has no name, no phone number. It was a costume party, so he never saw her face.
But he has that photo of her eyes — distinct, as well as her unique biometric identifier. Ian knows eyes. It’s what he studies. And when he spies her eyes on a billboard, he methodically sets out to track her down.
When he finally locks pupils on her on the subway “by accident,” she wordlessly acknowledges their connection. The stumbling, awkward man of science makes his best move. He shuffles to a romantic tune on his iPod, slides the headphones over her ears, and follows her off the train and into a whirlwind romance.
That would be a grand screen romance, all by itself. But it’s just the opening of “I Origins,” a moody, cerebral and very romantic mystery about love, chance, fate and science.
Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) is passionate and spiritual. Dr. Ian Grey is all about the data. His work seeks final proof that the complex human eye developed through evolution, to “end the debate, once and for all,” with the Intelligent Design crowd. Sofi challenges that, as does his scientist’s eye for odd coincidences, random numbers that aren’t random.
His new research assistant, Karen (Brit Marling), is just as methodical, and she directs their hunt in a new direction. Meanwhile, Sofi moves in and argues that their love was fated, as if they’ve known each other before and will know and love one another again, forever and always, in different guises.
Writer-director Mike Cahill (“Another Earth”) sparingly doles out the hard plot points, deftly emphasizing mood and character as the man of science finds himself wondering if there’s more to this life than what he can grow in a petri dish.
A tragedy deepens the mystery and becomes a potentially world-altering challenge to Ian’s world-view. But to figure out if the eyes truly are “the windows to the soul,” you have to first believe in a soul. And Ian and lab-partner Karen aren’t having that.
Cahill sets up a great, sexy and mystical romance, with Bergès-Frisbey the very embodiment of exotic accented desire. Then he introduces the testy and testing Karen into the mix, a beautiful, brilliant student who is Ian’s subordinate but in many ways his superior.
Pitt makes Ian a colorfully complicated guy, a romantic, more hip than nerdy, never so puzzled that he stops trying to reason through every fact that flies in the face of what he expects the data to be.
Marling is carving out the most interesting niche of any actress working. After this film, following “Another Earth,” “Sound of My Voice,” “The East,” “The Company You Keep” and “Arbitrage,” she’s practically pigeonholed herself as the smartest guy in the room. Not a bad place to be typecast — brainy, thoughtful and beautiful.
“I Origins” is a true indie film roller-coaster ride, from moon-eyed romance to aching heartbreak, cerebral puzzle to incredibly moving, emotional resolution to that puzzle.
In a season of the year where sci-fi is dumbed down and then dumbed some more for mass consumption, here’s a piece of speculative fiction that will stick with you long after the last Transformer’s battery has died.