When making a supernatural love story that deals in reincarnation, cosmic coincidence (not just meet-cutes), and other potentially troublesome grand designs, as the ambitious new film I Origins does, it can be useful to cast your protagonists as a pair of sober-thinking, data-inclined skeptics—namely, scientists. “It plays with that whole reversal of expectations thing,” says writer-director Mike Cahill.
In the romantic drama, which hits theaters this Friday, the biologist Dr. Ian Gray (Michael Pitt, dour and bespectacled) and his lab partner Karen (Brit Marling) are hunting the genetic link that would prove the human eye developed as a result of evolution. Amid the close-quarters courting of PAK6 genes, romance flickers—until, from out of nowhere, Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), a flighty, spiritual young woman with a smoky French accent and progressive fashion sense, dances into Ian’s orbit.
There is really only one proven theory about what happens next. (Opposites attract.) But what’s harder to predict is that Sofi would suffer a tragic accident, and that, although a shattered Ian falls into Karen’s waiting arms, he is nevertheless possessed by an unquantifiable sense that Sofi’s spirit lives on. He’s convinced the clue lies in her spectacularly vivid irises. “If you look at a person’s eyes very closely, it’s like looking at a nebulous supernova that’s the entryway into someone’s soul,” says Cahill, before adding, “I get a bit crazy about it now.”
It’s an idea that came to the director after a stint working at National Geographic, which published Steve McCurry’s famous 1985 photo of a young Afghan girl with otherworldly green eyes. Almost two decades later, McCurry and a team managed to track down the unidentified girl, now a grown woman, using iris biometrics, which scans for eye patterns (said to be unique and more accurate than fingerprints). In the film, which was shot in Brooklyn and India, Ian thinks that he’s found a posthumous match for Sofi’s distinctive eyes—her spirit reincarnated in another. “It rattles everything he believes in,” says Cahill, who comes from a family of doctors but was kicked out of freshman biology at Georgetown for asking too many questions. “I heckled my way out of the world of science, and found myself in the world of science movies.” He laughs. “You hang out with me a little bit, and things start to get creepy.”