Since the earliest years of cinema, science fiction has inspired filmmakers. Its major subjects -- space travel, time travel, alien encounters, robots, the future -- translate easily to film, the most magical of the arts, the most hospitable to the possibilities of fantasy. The form also responds to the dreams and fears of its time -- the threat of a hot or cold war, the possible existence of a superior civilization, the concept of some apocalyptic disaster.
Not surprisingly, as a result of advances in technology, the form continues to flourish and remains immensely popular in our time; unfortunately, it also tends to depend less on the imagination of speculative fiction than on the available chemical, technical, and electronic developments. Most contemporary science fiction movies rely for their appeal on stunts, explosions, and computer generated images, with all the depth and subtlety of the comic books they so often adapt.
The new movie "I Origins" (a pretty much meaningless pun of a title) differs from most science fiction in actually employing some of the authentic, verifiable science and technology of our time as its subject and as a vehicle for its meaning. Amazingly, in a refreshing departure from contemporary fashion, beyond the usual magic of the cinema itself, it uses no special effects, no car chases, no superheroes or supervillains.
Partially narrated by its protagonist, a scientist named Ian Gray (Michael Pitt), it confronts the ancient questions about the conflict of reason and faith, body and spirit, fact and truth. Gray's work concentrates on the evolution of the eye, studying the development of vision in various animals, ultimately leading to experiments in creating vision in eyeless creatures. By coincidence, a random series of odd events leads him to a billboard displaying a compelling pair of eyes; by another coincidence he meets and falls in love with Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), the woman whose eyes appear on the sign.
Although fueled by mutual passion, their relationship also emphasizes the essential debate between the scientist who respects only facts and the believer who assumes the existence of the soul. The tragic ending of their love leads Ian to a deeper level of research and finally draws in the science of ocular identification, the fact that the human eye is as distinctive and individual as the fingerprint. The movie opens again seven years later, with Ian married to his fellow researcher Karen (Brit Marling) and the author of a book challenging the arguments of intelligent design about the evolution of the eye.
When a physician tests their infant son for autism through visual experiments, however, Ian discovers the possibility of the eyes actually providing a window to the soul, a concept totally contrary to his work and belief. He and Karen ingeniously solve a genuine mystery that results from the tests on his son, a feat that finally inspires him to travel to India -- where the government institutes a program of ocular identification -- in search of another pair of eyes. That search inspires the strong emotion that ferments beneath the surface of Ian's life and work, even the motivation he had not realized existed behind his research
The movie's series of mysteries and quests provides a strong structure for the display of its central problem, a generally convincing depiction of the conflict between science and belief, the substantial and the mystical. In its final resolution, it also establishes a quite reasonable combination of intelligence and emotion, which need not necessarily conflict in the ways that Ian initially believes.
Again unlike most of its kind, "I Origins" depends for its meanings on a resolutely authentic exploration of the science and technology of its time. Ian's laboratory looks like the real thing, his work looks like real work, and the locations in New York and Delhi provide an entirely plausible context for the picture's subject and themes. The script consciously avoids anything like melodrama or exaggeration in most of its important moments and suggests that science fiction film at its best can raise the sorts of questions that often propelled the plots and people of its previous incarnations. The form needn't follow the pretensions of the comic books, but may aspire to something more solid and more profound.