Mike Cahill's audacious I Origins touches on a number of Big Subjects, such as reason versus spirituality, scientific hubris, and the perils of hooking up with supermodels. It's probably going to end up on an equal number of "Best of" and "Worst of" end-of-year lists.
Protagonist ("hero," not so much) Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) is a scientist obsessed with eyes. In addition to taking close-up pictures of the peepers of anyone who doesn't find the request creepy, his work is to make colorblind mice see colors, with the goal of eventually bringing sight to species that never evolved eyes. It's your typical tampering-in-God's-domain kind of stuff, but since he says he doesn't believe in God, he willfully chooses to miss the point of the metaphor. Indeed, he hopes to end the whole Intelligent Design/"a watch needs a watchmaker" debate, which is a perfectly noble goal — but, as atheistic scientists tend to be stereotyped in movies these days, he's a smug, charmless nozzle.
I Origins is by no means the same kind of overt anti-scientist propaganda as God's Not Dead, but since it plays its themes and emotions in broad, operatic strokes, Ian lacks the sense of joy and wonder found in, say, avowed atheists (and past and present Cosmos hosts) Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson. (That I Origins comes on the heels of Pitt's truly disturbing performance as Mason Verger on Hannibal only ups the creep factor.)
Ian is also a floppy-haired New York hipster, and at a Halloween party he meets Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), a fashion model who quite reasonably decides to flee Ian when he says a dumb thing during impromptu sex in a tastefully squalid closet. Thanks to a series of coincidences at 11:11 a.m. on 11/11 — hey, ever notice how the numeral 1 looks not unlike the letter I, which itself is a homophone for "eye," and when you put two 1s together they look like a pair of eyes, especially if you're watching a movie that will probably inspire several academic papers on eyeball imagery in the cinema? — Ian successfully stalks Sofi, and they pick up where they left off.
Unlike Ian, Sofi believes in souls and reincarnation and has reasonable ethical objections to mutating eyeless worms to make them grow eyes. She's the classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and while it's typically the MPDG's job in these movies to teach the boy how to lighten up, I Origins is playing a longer game than that. When a bizarre accident at the end of the first act cleaves Sofi from Ian on what was supposed to be their (ill-considered) wedding day, the picture jumps forward seven years and starts playing the cards it's dealt, moving into the realm of spiritual science fiction.
Though it moves at a brisk pace and is gorgeous to look at it, I Origins is a frequently confounding movie, one that will anger as many people as it will enchant. It's a film about not just the male gaze, but the reciprocal gaze — it would make a wonderfully abstract double feature with Godfrey Reggio's Visitors — but the gender politics are still troubling, particularly the character of Karen (Brit Marling). She's Ian's lab assistant turned wife and mother of his child, and writer/director Cahill gives her a Stepford-level tolerance for Ian's occasionally literal masturbation over that one hot girl he was involved with years ago.
Still, few recent films so motivated by the leading man's boner have such deep thematic ambitions, or are likely to inspire such heated post-viewing conversations.