Admirable, no-budget sci fi gets sucked in by the gravitational pull of sad teenagers and planet-sized metaphors
Directed by Mike Cahill
Cast: Brit Marling, William Mapother
At its best, science fiction places a mirror in front of humanity. It takes a far-fetched premise and uses that to create metaphors for our modern-day life. Take, for example, Blade Runner. That ahead-of-its-time classic imagines a future in which artificially created beings have become “more human than human.” It brings up the question of just how much of our basic humanity we’re willing to abdicate for the sake of technological progress. Or how about 1954’s Godzilla. Could there be a more glaring symbol of postwar fears of atomic warfare than the city-smashing behemoth from Japan? Another Earth, an admirably ponderable sci-fi indie, does its best to fit into this tradition. The film does so by eschewing science fiction as mere set dressing, instead intensely reflecting its spacey twist back on the characters who inhabit it.
Writer-director Mike Cahill and writer-actor Brit Marling have cleverly concocted a sci-fi premise that requires little to no effort (or money) to bring to cinematic life. Marling stars as Rhoda Williams, a bright-star teenager who graduates high school on a fast track to MIT. Unfortunately, one very poor decision involving a party, a lot of booze and a car leads to tragedy. The following information can’t really count as spoilers since it’s explicated in the first few minutes of the film, but fair warning nonetheless. Poor, sauced-up Rhoda accidentally plows her car into a sensible sedan carrying the happy, unsuspecting, upper-middle-class Burroughs family. Mom and young son expire, leaving behind devastated dad John (William Mapother, best known as freaky Ethan Rom from “Lost”). A few years down the road, Rhoda is released from jail, her once-promising life now in shambles. A lot has changed since Rhoda’s ill-fated night. Chief among those changes has been the discovery of a new planet, seemingly identical to Earth, in rotation around the sun.
Perhaps wisely, Another Earth doesn’t go into many scientific explanations. We’re not sure if this planet has suddenly appeared out of the ether or if it’s been hiding in some freaky parallel orbit for all eternity. Whatever the reason, there it is, growing closer in the sky every day. Sidestepping the very likely possibility of the gravitational destruction of the entire solar system, the film instead concentrates on the heady philosophical ramifications of the situation. If this planet is identical to ours, then it could be inhabited by identical people. Up there, there could be another us. Who’s to say that person wouldn’t have made different, perhaps wiser, choices in life? Can you see where of this is all leading?
Actually, it doesn’t lead anywhere very practical. The story concentrates on glum, repentant Rhoda who looks up John Burroughs only to find him living, joyless and friendless, in a broken-down farmhouse straight out of “Hoarding: Buried Alive.” Rhoda knocks on his door in a lame attempt to apologize. Unable to find the right words, though, she lies and says she’s from a cleaning service and only there to offer her free services for a day. John reluctantly lets her into the house, and by day's end, he’s hired her to be his weekly maid.
So, our situation is this: Rhoda, pretending to be a maid, hangs out at John’s house, cleaning up the mess his life has become but unable to admit her role in the death of his family. Occasionally, she looks up to the sky, sees Earth Two Photoshopped in there and wonders if, across that brief expanse of space, there’s another her—one who didn’t accidentally kill some nice suburban family one drunken night. That, to be honest, is about it.
To be sure, the film fits in snugly with America’s trendy obsession with alternate worlds / parallel universes, as seen in the FOX show “Fringe” and the soon-to-premiere NBC series “Awake” (about a police detective living two stories—one in which his wife has died in a car accident and one where his son has died). The central conceit gives our heroine plenty of fuel for her navel-gazing ways. What’s on that planet up there? Is there another Rhoda sweeping out attics and staring up at the sky? Or did that Rhoda catch a break? Is John’s family alive and well on some inexplicably duplicate Earth? Who can say? Certainly not Another Earth, which sets up plenty of provocative questions, but doesn’t really get around to answering them.
Truthfully, there’s much to admire in Another Earth. The filmmakers have figured out a way to make a sci-fi feature on a budget of somewhere around zero dollars. (Even the sets look like abandoned buildings the cast broke into.) The acting between the two leads is emotional and resonates far enough off the screen to affect the audience. Marling, a talented young actress just waiting to be snapped up by Hollywood, proves especially deft at navigating her character’s complex roller coaster of feelings. Unfortunately, 95 percent of the film is a standard-issue Lifetime movie of the week about a drunk-driving teen who tries to atone for her poor life choices. The special-effect-as-metaphor adds a lot to the story, but even that writ-large image can’t entirely liberate the film from its hidebound story of guilt and redemption.