Running time: 92 minutes Rating: PG-13 for disturbing images, some sexuality, nudity and brief drug use Directed by: Mike Cahill Written by: Brit Marling & Mike Cahill Starring: Brit Marling, William Mapother, Matthew-Lee Erlbach, Meggan Lennon, Kumar Pallana
It just sits there in the sky looming over the horizon line, an intangible mystery. A big, round shiny, new Earth—perfectly visible from our vantage point here on this one. It’s the central –and none too subtle—image of Mike Cahill’s debut feature, Another Earth, and what it lacks in scientific plausibility it makes up for in speculative mystic. Given the chance to explore , would you be more compelled by the prospect of a new world, or a new version of yourself? Perhaps one that made different choices, was given different opportunities, gained or lost in ways varying from your own. This is the promise of the film, and although it’s not a homerun as science-fiction, it’s a carefully crafted and affecting indie drama that has interesting things to say about regret, hope and redemption. In a genre full of bug-eyed monsters and flashy tech weaponry, this is a refreshing change of pace.
Cahill and his co-writer and star, Brit Marling, have conceived Another Earth starting with that distinctive image of the mirror world hanging there in a blue, clouded sky. The script is both simplistic and elegantly complex; it ignores some obvious logical inconsistencies like the fact that there are no physical repercussions for the sudden appearance of a planet the exact same size and mass so close to our own. And the arrival of this new orb in the sky happens suddenly, with no t so much fanfare as you would expect. But it nails the mystery and emotional awakening of the possibilities that come with the concept. This is a character drama, played out against the backdrop of magical realism.
The emergence of Earth 2 is woven into another event in the story; young would-be astrophysicist Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling) looks up from the wheel to gaze at the starry night and plows into another car, killing the wife and young son of composer John Burroughs (Will Mapother). This tragedy disrupts both their lives, sending Rhoda to jail for four years and spinning John into a depression that leaves him living in squalor, his music forgotten and unfinished.
The bulk of Another Earth takes place in the aftermath of those four years, following these two characters. The sci-fi set-up is taking place in the background, in news broadcasts, papers, radio announcements and conversations. Now, Earth 2 is fully visible, even during the day, and there’s no dismissing the fact it’s a visual copy of our planet in every way. Satellite intel shows that they have cities in the same places we do, and when a news anchor attempts to make contact on live broadcast, the voice she hears coming back is her own. Not her exactly, but her mirror image on the other Earth. What are the implications of this?
A shuttle trip to explore the alternate Earth is announced and a contest to win a free seat on the expedition is made available to the public. Rhoda is intrigued; she has always wanted to explore beyond this planet, and stares out with longing. Her hopes on this one are seemingly crashed. She was headed to MIT before the accident but now she’s come home from prison fearful and diminished, taking a job as a janitor at a local school. She’s keeping her head down, and then 0ne day she heads to John’s house to talk to him, apologize, make some kind of amends and instead panics and tells him a lie; that she’s there with a maid’s service to provide weekly cleaning in the area. He’s obstinate and chilly at first, but his house is a cluttered cavern of busted memories and filth, and he concedes to her offer. A relationship of sorts develops, leading tenuously into a friendship with the tension-filled caveat that John doesn’t know what it is Rhoda has done. This is a contrivance of the plot that strains the drama, but it opens the door for Marling and Mapother to take center stage and they make Cahill’s slender fantasy come alive.
Brit Marling is a real discovery here as an actress and her bold performance, confidently sketching out uncertainty and trepidation, has a serene beauty to it. She’s lovely to behold, with striking features and a kind of emotional fragility that endears her. Inner stores of strength exist in Rhoda, but she keeps pushing them down. Marling was responsible for co-writing the script and fashioning the character, and in her acting she’s putting on finishing touches. Even the way Rhoda goes about touching the things in John’s house—Mapother eventually being one of them—tells us much about her headspace. When she’s looking through that telescope, Marling makes the regret register in her eyes. Mapother, whose an alum of Lost and a fine character actor in his own right, really steps up and owns John and his anguish. There’s a messy kind of obvious and clunky melodrama at play between John and Rhoda, but it works so well because Mapother accentuates human grief and apathy in a way that feels familiar, even if you have never been close to someone dealing with loss. When he performs a piece of unearthly music for Rhoda using nothing more than a saw and a bow, there’s a sense of him coming alive and for a moment we don’t have to wonder what kind of man might be living out there on that other Earth, untouched by tragedy. He’s right there in front of us.
So the movie works as a drama between two people struggling with loss. That’s fine, but what about the selling point, the other Earth and it’s potentially different populace? That works too, but it isn’t as overt as you may be expecting. Director Cahill knows exactly what kind of movie he’s making, and a mind-bending science fiction picture this isn’t. Some aren’t going to be happy with the theorizing and psychological aspects and will want a better understanding of why any of this is happening. How, if at all, is it reasonable within the realm of science for this planet to exist in tandem with ours? Those questions are sidestepped on purpose, and only the personal ones, related to Rhoda and John and ourselves, remain.
I found the film to be both illuminating and refreshing and Cahill shows the good sense and imagination of a first rate storyteller even if he’s working with only half a bag of tricks here. The final shot is a curious one. It suggests that our vision regarding this whole ordeal might have been clouded from the get-go. Sometimes you have to go all the way off world, and stand back from afar considering it as a tiny blue thing before everything that matters really comes into focus.