2011 // USA // Mike Cahill // August 12, 2011 // Theatrical Print (Landmark Theaters Tivoli Theater)
Another Earth is speculative science fiction stripped down to its most essential characteristic: The employment of scientific principles as a plot device in order to explore the philosophical facets of an otherwise human-centered narrative. In the case of Mike Cahill’s subtle, intriguing little film, the "science" in question is of the thinnest and most fantastical sort. A twin Earth has appeared in the sky, and over the course of the film this doppelganger planet looms larger and larger, all without any apparent gravitational effect on our Earth. Naturally, such a conceit makes zero sense from an astronomical standpoint, but Another Earth is really a flirtation with the fuzzier quasi-scientific notion of parallel universes. When the director of SETI makes first contact with “Earth 2” on a national television broadcast, she quickly discovers that she is talking to another version of herself. Members of a New England family watching this exchange from their living room give voice to the viewer’s probable reaction: “I don’t understand--What does that mean?”
This is lofty stuff for a low-budget indie. Cahill and lead performer / co-writer Brit Marling have neither the means nor the interest to peer in on the urgent White House meetings and radical research projects that such a miracle would engender. Like Signs and Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, Cahill's film assumes a ground-level viewpoint for its extraordinary events. In this case, our witness is Rhoda (Marling), an MIT-bound astrophysics student whose life becomes entwined with that of the twin planet on the eve of its first appearance. Craning to catch a glimpse of this new celestial orb while speeding home from a night of drunken revelry, Rhoda collides with a car carrying a family of three, killing the young son and wife of a Yale musicologist, John (William Mapother). Four years later, a private spaceflight company is arranging the first manned mission to Earth 2, just as Rhoda is paroled from a manslaughter sentence. Adrift and addled with guilt, she tracks down John in order to ask for forgiveness, but loses her nerve at the last minute. Through a series of misunderstandings and deceptions, she then finds herself working as John’s house cleaner, and the two eventually form a guarded but much-needed friendship. In the meantime, Rhoda enters an essay contest to win a seat on the voyage to Earth 2, a hopeful act that not only speaks to her childhood yearning for the stars, but also her pained curiosity about a universe in which her life followed a different course.
One doesn’t need a compass and protractor to see where this is going: Rhoda and John realize that they are falling in love right around the time that Rhoda wins the aforementioned contest, much to her (but not the audience’s) astonishment. Strictly as a narrative about remorse and absolution, Another Earth is pretty standard indie drama material—more Sundance than Solaris, if you will. The film blunders into eye-rolling cliché at times, e.g. an elderly janitor who serves no purpose other than to reflect Rhoda’s despair and to periodically mumble half-baked wisdom. Fortunately, the science fiction angle to the story saves Another Earth from its own conventional outlines. Rhoda’s tribulations are unquestionably the focus of the film, but Earth 2 is always there, filling every exterior shot with the sheer impossible fact of its existence and thereby coloring the terrestrial proceedings. As it happens, this also allows for some glorious visuals of the second Earth against an azure sky, including a shot that explicitly evokes La Jetée / Dark City / Twelve Monkeys. (Such hyper-real daylight imagery contrasts sharply with the smeary grain that Cahill’s digital video lends to the nocturnal scenes.)
The film’s budgetary constraints end up enhancing the uneasy tone: The planetary double, which resembles the famed Apollo 17 “Blue Marble” photo pasted into in the sky, never seems to rotate or exhibit changes in its weather, making it seem less a solid place than a portal to another reality. Adding to the film’s uncanny sense of dislodgment is the occasional voiceover narration from real-life physicist Richard E. Berendzen, who speculates poetically on the implications of parallel universes and life on other planets. Far from over-explaining the phenomenon of Earth 2 with unwelcome, pseudo-scientific gobbledygook, Cahill and Marling leave nearly all the technical details unexplored. Instead, they allow snippets of possibility to seep into the minds of the characters (and the audience) from overheard television and radio programs, where experts pontificate on various theories about Earth 2. This adroit, minimalist use of science is what allows the film’s abrupt conclusion to function so well, despite the howls of confusion and anger that it will no doubt prompt from some viewers. What Cahill offers with Another Earth is, in a sense, the fundamental feat of all thoughtful science fiction: The deepening of an otherwise musty story not through smash-bang spectacle, but through Big Ideas plucked from the cosmos itself.