Suppose you are in high school, and your interest in movies has begun to run deeper than multiplex fare. You may find yourself gravitating to a particular kind of intellectual film: the dour, the twisty, and the ostentatious must be regarded as the pinnacle of the form, because, you feel, you are a serious person who only has time for serious films.
A good movie, in your estimation, is one you had to think hard to solve, as you did with, say, Donnie Darko or Memento, which made you feel smart for working them out. Mike Cahill’s I Origins owes a lot to this tradition, and it’s easy to imagine many high school minds quite enjoying the self-contained puzzles of story and meaning its plot affords.
The film concerns the efforts of two scientists, played with ample pluck by Michael Pitt and Brit Marling, to map out the evolution of the human eye, an endeavor that soon leads, rather bafflingly, to dismemberment, globe-trotting, and revelations about the existence of God.
The story proceeds with all the flighty unreality of a film unconcerned with real-world scientific rigor (sample dialogue: “Maybe the eye really is the window to the soul!”), but Cahill manufactures enough conspiracies, coincidences, and extraordinary turns of plot to keep his thinking audience too busy to care. We’re firmly in the territory of Serious Intellectual Film. The problem, of course, is that even in high school, thinking of plots as puzzles is a pretty facile way to think about films, and as such the pleasures of I Origins remain strictly superficial.