A Ph.D. student, Ian Gray, is researching the evolution of human eyes with Karen, his first year lab assistant, and Kenny. He has a particular hostility to superstition and "intelligent design", which he hopes to discredit by filling in the steps of the evolution of the eye. At a Halloween party he has an encounter with Sofi, who is wearing a mask. He photographs her eyes and they go into the washroom to have sex. Abruptly she leaves.
Ian continues thinking about her. One day, synchronicities seem to mysteriously guide him to a billboard displaying what he recognizes to be Sofi's eyes. Eventually he sees her on a train. They begin a relationship, although his rationalism clashes with her fey spirituality. One day they agree to marry. They are told they need to wait a day for a license, and Ian gets a call from Karen at the lab. There has been a breakthrough in their research. She has found a blind worm—Eisenia fetida—with the DNA to develop an eye. Ian takes Sofi to the lab with him.
Sofi is upset by the research they're doing and Karen leaves. Sofi kisses Ian and knocks over a bottle of formaldehyde, splashing his eyes. They call Karen, who helps him to the eyewash station and bandages his eyes, and Sofi takes him home. Then the elevator in Sofi's apartment building stops between floors. As they try to climb out, the elevator starts to move again and Sofi is killed. Ian goes into a depression, and Karen continues their research. One night Karen brings him a meal at his home. He begins to cry and she hugs him. They begin to kiss.
The film flashes forward seven years. Ian has written a book on the evolution of the eye that he claims further debunks creationism. Ian and Karen are now married and Karen is pregnant. When their baby is born, the hospital takes an iris scan of him. The results are entered in the database and the program identifies the baby as a certain Paul Edgar Dairy. The nurse re-enters the results and the problem disappears.
A few months later, a Doctor Simmons calls, claiming that a test of the baby's urine may indicate an elevated risk of autism and recommending a further test. But Ian and Karen become suspicious during this test and decide to investigate Doctor Simmons. They find that she is in fact one of a few people with full access to the iris scan database. Ian tracks some pictures from this test to Idaho where he stumbles on the family of Paul Edgar Dairy, who apparently died just before their baby was conceived.
Ian's former research partner, Kenny, is the creator of the iris database. He helps Ian and Karen run some photos of deceased people's eyes through the database to see if there are any recent matches. They get a hit for Sofi, whose iris scan matches one made in India just three months prior, years after Sofi's death.
Ian goes to India to find the subject of this scan. There he finds Priya, the head of the community centre where the iris scan was made. Priya recognizes Sofi's eyes as those of a girl she knows, named Salomina, and agrees to help. Ian and Priya begin searching for Salomina, who is an orphan and seems to have disappeared into the crowds of the city. Ian tries putting up a billboard showing Sofi's eyes and offering a cash reward. He is besieged with calls but none are credible. Weeks later he comes across a little girl staring at the billboard. It is Salomina. He takes her back to his hotel and contacts Karen over Skype. The two of them conduct a simple test designed to reveal if Salomina might be somehow linked with Sofi. At first Salomina is uncannily accurate, but in the end her results are within the probable range of random chance. Karen asks him how he feels about this and he says he feels foolish. Ian then leaves the hotel room with Salomina to take her to Priya but when they reach the elevator, Salomina panics and throws herself into his arms. They cling to each other, crying, and he picks her up and takes her down the stairs instead.
A post-credits scene shows Dr. Simmons scanning the irises of famous deceased figures, apparently finding matches.Michael Pitt as Ian Gray
Brit Marling as Karen
Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey as Sofi Elizondo
Steven Yeun as Kenny
Archie Panjabi as Priya Varma
Cara Seymour as Dr. Jane Simmons
Venida Evans as Margaret Dairy
William Mapother as Darryl Mackenzie
Kashish as Salomina
I Origins was the second feature film by writer-director Mike Cahill after his earlier independent science fiction-drama, Another Earth (2011), also with actress Brit Marling. Cahill sold the film rights to Another Earth to Fox Searchlight Pictures at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. At that time he also sold a screenplay to what would be his next feature film titled I. Though during the development of I, after failing to "crack" some aspects of the story, Cahill instead decided to make an origin story for the film, in which he had a "rich back story for".
Although Fox Searchlight owned the rights to any prequels or sequels to the I script, Cahill decided to make I Origins independently. He intended to sell the film at the Sundance Film Festival, like he did for Another Earth. Fox Searchlight agreed and the film was produced by Verisimilitude and WeWork Studios in association with Bersin Pictures and Penny Jane Films. After the premiere of I Origins at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, Fox Searchlight ended up buying the rights to the film.
I Origins premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival on January 18, 2014. After its premiere, Fox Searchlight Pictures bought rights to worldwide distribution of the film. The film won the festival's Alfred P. Sloan Prize, which recognizes films that depict science and technology. The win was Cahill's second; his film Another Earth also won the prize in 2011. I Origins also screened at the Brooklyn-based BAMcinemaFest and at the Nantucket Film Festival, both in late June 2014.
I Origins began its limited theatrical release on July 18, 2014 in just four theaters. The following week, it expanded to 76 theaters.
I Origins received mixed reviews from critics. Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a rating of 53%, based on 100 reviews, with a weighted average score of 6/10. The site's consensus states: "Writer-director Mike Cahill remains an intriguingly ambitious talent, but with the uneven sci-fi drama I Origins, his reach exceeds his grasp". On Metacritic, the film has a score of 57 out of 100, based on 36 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews". Jordan Zakarin, of entertainment and media news website TheWrap, said that "The movie starts as a love story and then morphs into a thriller, propelled always by the push and pull of faith and logic, with tragedy shifting world views over time". He continued, saying that "The message is both micro and macro, aimed at the renewed war in the United States over issues like science education and contraception, as well as Cahill's way of working out his own mixed emotions".
I Origins was developed as a prequel of I, a screenplay which Cahill sold to Fox Searchlight Pictures in 2011. Cahill intended for I to take place twenty years after the event of I Origins, after the repercussions of Dr. Ian Gray’s discoveries take hold, as teased in the post-credits of the film.
During press interviews for the film, Cahill spoke of plans to go ahead with a sequel to I Origins, saying "There's a sequel in the works. It's not scripted. We're not in production yet, but we set up at Fox Searchlight".