In Mike Cahill movies, bad things happen to good people, and other good people are guilt-ridden as a result. But the human connections and the spare sci-fi logic that characterized "Another Earth," Cahill's ethereal romantic dramatic debut, are muddied in his second feature, "I Origins."
It is, in fact, logic that weighs this film down. While "Another Earth" floated the idea of a parallel universe and a second chance at life and love within its tragedy, "I Origins" uses its misfortune to contemplate evolution and spirituality against a shaky romantic tableau.
Michael Pitt stars as Dr. Ian Gray, a hipster molecular biologist studying the eye, specifically the iris, as individualistic as a fingerprint. When he's not in the lab, he's out snapping photos of eyes, which provide some of the film's more compelling visuals. The iris close-up is a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors. It's metaphorically where the film draws its name.
The conflict turns on Gray's research. He seems as intent on proving to others as reassuring himself that evolution is responsible for the world as we know it. What happens when Gray's certainty is shaken becomes grist for the spiritual mill Cahill is grinding.
On the romantic front, Gray is torn between two women, a flighty model named Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) and a serious researcher, Karen, played by Brit Marling, who starred in and co-wrote "Another Earth" with the filmmaker.
If those descriptions don't make it clear, the women are not only polar opposites, they fit all the usual female clichés. Marling's scientist even wears black horned-rimmed glasses, so she must be serious. Sofi is enchanting, and Berges-Frisbey is lovely in the role. The bohemian life Sofi favors at first excites the more reserved scientist, then soon exhausts him.
A terrible thing happens to change the course of their relationship. It's gruesome, but not shocking in the way the filmmaker intends, which is to say, not shocking at all.
From that point, "I Origins" and its guilt lurches forward in increasingly desperate ways.
The story picks up seven years later. Gray is married to Karen, and they have a toddler who may have autism. The tests for their son eventually circle back to Gray's work and Sofi's memory in eerie ways. It also sparks another, and very different, round of research for the scientist. The answer lies in the startling blue eyes of a New Delhi street urchin named Salomina (Kashish). Do Salomina's eyes speak of evolution, reincarnation, a random anomaly? By this point you may not care.
On the face of it, tackling the warring sides of science and the spirit seemed a good fit for the writer-director, who continues to be drawn to existential themes. There are occasional flashes of the exceptional, but the film's dodgy story can't sustain them.
The camera work and polish of the film, however, shows that given a little bigger budget, Cahill can put beautiful images on screen. Working with cinematographer Markus Forderer, production designer Tania Bijlani and costume designer Megan Gray, Cahill gives "I Origins" a distinctive retro-hip look.
Meanwhile, Marling continues to get better. After the Sundance coming-out party for "Another Earth" in 2011, the actress had another breakthrough performance as the overly smart executive questioning her hedge-fund father played by Richard Gere in "Arbitrage" (2012). Marling does smart and sophisticated extremely well, she's just under-employed here.
Pitt brings a kind of bruised moodiness to Gray that makes his particular existential crises provocative. That sensibility shades much of the actor's work, like the sexy American student sucked into a Paris intrigue in Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Dreamers." The "Boardwalk Empire" folks understood exactly what to do with that ethos. Pitt was gripping as a driven, rising young gangster in the acclaimed HBO series until Steve Buscemi's Nucky brought him down in Season 2.
In this case, the material fails the actor. Pitt's conflicted scientist should have been far more conflicted, and the dialogue should definitely have been better. Instead the actor is left to make lines like "but I'm a doctor" resonate with either meaning or outrage depending on the moment, when the moment called for so much more.
MPAA rating: R for some sexuality/nudity and language
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes