Director: Mike Cahill
Writer: Brit Marling, Mike Cahill
Starring: Brit Marling, William Mapother
Release Date: 20 July 2011 (US), 29 July 2011 (Canada)
2011 is quickly turning into the year where micro and macro anxieties converge in this curious little sub-genre: the cosmos drama. Tree of Life kicked it off with its creation-as-prayer musing, Melancholia situates the impending annihilation of our planet on the night of one couple’s nuptials, and now the Sundance version of this trend comes in the form of Mike Cahill’s Another Earth. The sci-fi premise of Another Earth sounds like something that must have been explored long before now: without explanation, a second planet appears in the sky that resembles our Earth in every way, as SETI tries to make contact with this anomaly, a far more terrestrial drama unfolds in the forefront between a MIT student and Harvard professor. A pretty sweet hook, particularly with the striking visual image of the Earth dotting the atmospheric sky; the question is does it payoff?
If expecting sci-fi steeped in set-pieces of galactic discovery, one will leave Another Earth gravely disappointed – it is far more about ideas than storyboards. Though the film flirts with philosophical and allegorical concepts of the genre, its feet are set firmly on the ground. The sci-fi conceit plays out mostly in the background of the story of Rhoda Williams, a woman at a crossroads in her life trying desperately to make amends for a horrible accident she caused on the eve of the planet’s discovery. As the world grapples with the implications of a second Earth, Rhoda sleepwalks through it consumed by her own personal hell. By the end, the planetary conceit is justified within the narrative, the two story-lines building to an evocative final shot. Whether or not it lives up to the headier or more visually striking entries in the genre, feels beside the point: Another Earth is a damn fine character drama in its own right, which ultimately becomes the real hook.
Overusing the quick-zoom as indie films today tend to do, and being a little too precious with how it goes about telling its story, Another Earth is not without its flaws. There is a nagging lack of subtlety in the seams of the story, from bits of commentary to coincidental encounters and situations; the lazy short-form that has made the Sundance label feel at times like a derogatory genre unto itself. To some, this quaint storytelling may be a deal-breaker, and in the showing I was at, there were walk-outs. Fortunately, the story of Rhoda and her unorthodox relationship with the bereaved, John Burroughs, finds a momentum and intensity that more than makes up for these minor infractions.
Chief among its strengths is the central lead played by Brit Marling, a relative unknown that inhabits the character of Rhoda from the inside out. The first half of the film plays mostly silent as Rhoda crawls into her shell overcome by the guilt of what she has done. The film works best when it is allows Marling to play out this pantomimed sadness as Rhoda bumps up against the largely indifferent world around her. There is a Wendy and Lucy quality to this careful observation, and as Rhoda’s relationship with John develops, the transformation is a wonder to watch. John is played by William Mapother, best known perhaps for his creepy stint as Ethan in the television series Lost. Here he plays against that type, and does an admirable job conveying a delicate balance of grief with a yearning to be saved. When the drama comes to a head, the experience is visceral.
In the end, Another Earth won me over with its dramatic performances and how it played out the conflict, the science fiction element was just icing on the cake. I cared more about Rhoda’s plight than that of the Earth, which, in this film, is kind of the point. No twist, no MacGuffin, just an old-fashion human tragedy told with a maturity that elevates the science fiction genre beyond its gimmicks.