Tibetan monks go on searches for reincarnated lamas. They have a method. They track them to remote villages, hauling lama accouterments of previous incarnations, and display them before the suspected infant lama, inquiring, “Which was your rattle? Which was your drum? Was this your feather?”
When the child points correctly to all his previous artifacts, monks notify the Dalai Lama, who travels there, inspects the boy, and tells the parents, “Keep him clean!” Meaning they should shelter the boy from the dye vat of corrupting modern influences. So goes the story of 2008’s “Unmistaken Child.”
A secularized telling of the same ritual crops up in the very fine “I Origins,” directed by Mike Cahill, but in science-fiction format. Molecular-biology thriller-romance format, to be exact.
Michael Pitt plays Ian Gray, a young Ph.D. candidate. He’s an eye-guy. Flying the geek flag, he shows up at a Brooklyn hipster party in a lab coat, toting a camera and taking pictures of people’s eyes.
As such, it’s not a bad pickup ploy. Up on the roof, he suddenly notices Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) standing in the shadows, looking like Cat Woman. Out comes the camera. Her long-lashed, exquisitely green, gold-flecked eyes go in the database.
He yaks too much. She abruptly disappears. But the poison of obsession is already in his veins. Can’t eat, can’t sleep, must find that girl.
One day he gets in the zone—he decides to blindly follow the coincidental number sequences and random serendipitous hints that suddenly crop up, which lead straight to seeing Sofi and her unforgettable eyes again. How he eventually finds her is one of the more magical “meet-cutes” of the year.
They’re complete opposites. Opposites attract.
Many men will choose addictive beauty and physical chemistry over the ability to share thoughts and be understood. They move in together, but Sofi increasingly frustrates his rigorous scientist’s mind with her intuitive musings.
Sofi’s over-the-top, violent second (and final) disappearance closes the door on Ian’s atheism, and opens a window to his spirituality.
But this is only one half of the story.
Ian’s second great love is soul mate Karen (Brit Marling). A brilliant, blonde med student and lab assistant, she’s a fellow tribe member who burns with the passion of their shared calling. They’ve got the intimacy of a deep meeting of the minds.
Their work leads them to this concept: No two pairs of eyes are the same. But if a match does occur, it can only mean one thing. Namely, a person having the exact eye structure as another … is the reincarnation of its previous possessor.
That’s the far-fetched premise of “I Origins,” and some early, effective sci-fi sleight-of-hand may very well have you believing it’s more science than fiction.
Years later, Ian and Karen are married, their work is recognized, and after the birth of their son, on a doctor’s recommendation, they subject him to some autism tests. The lab, the doctor, and the results seem fishy. That doctor should’ve known better than to mess with the kid of two determined world-class, cutting-edge experts in the same field.
With the help of Ian’s old sell-out roommate, they manage to get into the massive, worldwide eye-scan database, looking for matches to their son’s scans. He would appear to have the exact same eyes as the only African-American farmer living in Boise, Idaho. But, it turns out, the farmer just died.
Ian cues up Sofi’s eye-scan images from the database. He flies to India; apparently there’s a young girl there with those self-same eyes. And this is where the latter-day lama search sequence is played out.
Eye scans are the new fingerprints. It’s happening now. There’s a post-credits sequence like the Marvel superhero teasers, so make sure to stay seated. This one is a little creepy in a sort of apocalyptic, conspiracy theory way.
All acting is stellar. Kashish, the child actor they found in an orphanage in India, is riveting. Cinematography fabulous. Writing and directing, dead on. As of yet, we have no science on reincarnation, but the science fiction is getting warmer.
Director: Mike Cahill
Starring: Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Steven Yeun, Archie Panjabi, Cara Seymour, Venida Evans, William Mapother, Kashish
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Release date: July 18
4 stars out of 5