Tibetan monks go on searches for reincarnated lamas. They have a method. They track them via word of mouth, cosmic hints, visions, and dreams, to remote villages, hauling lama accouterments of previous incarnations. They then display said accouterments before the suspected reincarnated infant lama, inquiring, “Which was your rattle? Which was your drum? Was this your feather?”
When they find a child who is able to correctly point out all his previously-owned artifacts, the Dalai Lama is notified, who then travels there, inspects and interviews the boy, and tells the parents, “Keep him clean!” Meaning they should shelter the boy from the big dye vat of corrupting modern influences.
That’s not the story of “I Origins.” That’s 2008’s documentary “Unmistaken Child,” where monk Tenzin Zopa of Nepal goes in search of the reincarnation of Geshe Lama Konchog, his former master.
A secularized telling of the same ritual crops up in “I Origins,” directed by Mike Cahill, but in science-fiction format. Molecular-biology thriller-romance format, to be exact.
Does reincarnation exist? Does God? Is our universe really the product of intelligent design? Is there such a thing as heaven? A handful of 2014 films pose these questions about faith, to varying degrees of success. “Son of God” tackled the subject by drilling down on the source material, while “Heaven Is for Real” told a real-life modern tale of a little boy who claimed he’d gone to heaven and seen Jesus.
Michael Pitt plays molecular-biologist-to-be Ian Gray, a young Ph.D. candidate. He’s an eye specialist. He wishes to disprove religious doctrine by examining the evolution of the human eye, and seeing if he can outwit evolution by developing eyes for blind worms. Flying the geek flag, Ian 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, and her long-lashed, exquisite green-and-brown, gold-flecked eyes go in the database.
He then proceeds to yak too much. This is a beauty; she’ll not be tolerating the geek-fest he’s serving up and abruptly disappears. But the drug of obsession is already in his veins; he can’t eat, he can’t sleep, he must find that girl again.
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 your more imaginative “meet-cutes.” They’re complete opposites; opposites attract.
Many men, especially young men, will choose addictive female beauty and physical chemistry over the ability to share thoughts and be understood. Ian and Sofi move in together, but Sofi increasingly frustrates his rigorous scientist’s mind with her intuitive musings. Her next, over-the-top, violent, 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 soulmate Karen (Brit Marling). A brilliant blond 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 have 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 Kenny (Steven Yeun, of “Minari“) who is now the creator the worldwide iris scan database, they look 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. Who just died. Well, well, well. What have we here?
As a test, Steven then helps Ian and Karen run photos of deceased family members, plus various other people’s eyes through the database to see if there are any other recent matches. They get a hit for Sofi, whose iris scan matches one made in India just three months prior, years after Sofi’s disappearance.
Ian 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 of “Unmistaken Child” is played out.
Eye scans are the new fingerprints. It’s happening now. There’s a post-credits teaser (like the Marvel superhero sequel teasers) so make sure you keep watching. This one is a little creepy in a sort of apocalyptic, conspiracy-theory way.
All acting is stellar, the cinematography is fabulous, Kashish (the child actor they found in an orphanage in India) is riveting, and the writing and directing, dead on.
This metaphysical love story asks more questions than it can answer, but answers aren’t the point of the film; ideas are. It’ll make you think. A lot. And as of yet, we have no science on reincarnation, but the science fiction seems to be getting warmer.
Director: Mike Cahill
Starring: Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Steven Yeun, William Mapother
Running Time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Release Date: Jan. 18, 2014
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5