Viewers of earnest sci-fi dramas like I Origins are required to suspend disbelief, but the scripters of such movies have responsibilities, too. They can't introduce ideas so ridiculous, or suddenly twist their premises so illogically, that audiences are fatally distracted.
Take, for example, Snowpiercer, set on a frozen future Earth. While a home nestled in the warm bedrock would be the logical place to wait out an ice age, let's accept that the few surviving humans are instead circling the globe on a "high-speed" train. But then the filmmakers throw in the notion that it takes a year to make a complete circuit. That means, if the train is tracing the Earth's widest circumference, it's moving a little under 3 MPH. A snowpiercing bicycle could beat that.
In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, great care is taken to show that the CGI apes follow genuine simian psychology. So when one chimp challenges another, the two fight for dominance. But then the loser skulks off and does what he wanted to do anyway, which negates the whole setup.
Writer-director Mike Cahill's I Origins is even more cavalier about its own ground rules, although not until its second hour. In the first part, bio-researcher Ian (Michael Pitt) tries to disprove Intelligent Design proponents' claim that the human eye is too complex to be a result of evolution. So he tinkers with the genes of blind worms, hoping to demonstrate how easy it is to give the critters sight.
Always obsessed with eyes, Ian has taken many photos of complexly colored and patterned irises. Naturally, when he encounters the Latin-French beauty who will seduce him from his lab-rat lifestyle, she's wearing a mask, so just her eyes are visible. Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) is drawn to Ian as well, but their encounter is fleeting.
How to find her? Of course she's a model whose eyes are displayed on a billboard, to which Ian's own peepers are drawn by the lucky number "11," which is sort of "ii." (Puns are the movie's essential logic.)
Ian and Sofi relocate temporarily to an European art film and enjoy a half-dressed idyll, sensuously shot by cinematographer Markus Forderer. They're almost perfect together, and this section of the film is a pleasant tumble of gently erotic images. But he's a scientist and she's a mystic, which might seem to be the conflict that will animate the movie's second half.
A closer look, however, reveals trouble right at the lab. Her name is Karen, and she's dedicated, brilliant and utterly rational — the first assistant Ian has ever taken seriously. Yes, it's Brit Marling in another one of her too-good-to-be-true roles.
Marling didn't co-write I Origins, as she did the equally solemn and nutty Another Earth, the previous feature by Cahill, her Georgetown University classmate. But she plays the figure who will, coolly and methodically, lead the movie from science-y fiction into barking-mad nonsense, complete with an after-the-credits scene set in Crazytown.
It turns out that "I" not just rhymes with "eye," but also indicates the eternal identity some call the soul. For the story's conclusion, Sofi exits, Karen moves in and Ian eventually goes to India, home of an actual national iris-recognition ID program that may have inspired the film. It's also a place, by the way, where a lot of people believe in reincarnation.
If the film's plot is loonier than a mainstream movie would dare, the essential trajectory is one of Hollywood's favorites: from skepticism to faith. There's a "i" in "believe," which is just the sort of empty happenstance I Origins tries to spin into a mind-blowing epiphany.