I Origins lacks focus

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Starring Michael Pitt. Rated PG.

This almost too meticulously shot film, initially centring on the more photogenic parts of New York City, follows a grad-student scientist named Ian Gray (Boardwalk Empire’s pouty Michael Pitt) as he undertakes a genome project intended to bring vision to unsighted animals. He’s prompted in this by his tomboy-ish new lab assistant played by monotonous Brit Marling, who also starred in Another Earth, the previous effort in stunted ambition from writer-director Mike Cahill.

Ian has long been cataloguing irises of all types, an obsession that connects with the film’s awkward title. For some reason, he thinks his success will disprove the existence of God. Hey, whatever gets you through the next 352 clinical trials, right? Wrong. The movie is almost entirely concerned with this false dialectic—the ocular versus the occult—and the vaguely developed characters spend more time pondering it than doing things.

There are some interesting developments, especially at a Halloween party where Ian has a clothed encounter of the sexy kind with a mysterious woman in an improvised cat suit. They almost get it on, but he at least manages to photograph her eyes before she disappears into the night. Through his amazing research abilities, he’s able to track down the Parisian Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), and they only have eyes for each other.

Ian may believe in science, but he doesn’t seem to know about lung cancer; the director rarely misses an opportunity to establish “intimacy” by having people share cigarettes in tiny spaces, often with the business end brushing bare skin. It’s creepy but doesn’t feel like a conscious decision, just as when Ian later travels to India to find a raggedy girl whose irises somehow match Sofi’s, and takes her by the hand to his swanky hotel room to perform optical “experiments”.

Cahill’s pseudoscientific script is clueless in other ways. No English-speaking biologist would refer to a mutation as “reoccurring”, and the grammar sometimes fails completely. “Do you hold any validity in that?” yells an especially flustered Ian. You have to wonder if Cahill was aware of having ripped off essential plot elements and tonal devices of Cat People and Curse of the Cat People, psych-horror classics in which an engineer shakes off darkly seductive Simone Simon to hook up with his blond colleague, only to have a child marked by the absent foreigner’s strange genes. Is flattery still sincere when the imitator doesn’t even know what he’s doing?

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