Another Earth *** ½
Directed by: Mike Cahill.
Written by: Mike Cahill & Brit Marling.
Starring: Brit Marling (Rhoda Williams), William Mapother (John Burroughs), Matthew-Lee Erlbach (Alex), DJ Flava (Himself), Meggan Lennon (Maya Burroughs), AJ Diana (John's Son), Jordan Baker (Kim Williams), Flint Beverage (Robert Williams), Robin Taylor (Jeff Williams), Rupert Reid (Keith Harding), Diane Ciesla (Dr. Joan Tallis), Luis Vega (Federico).
Rhoda is a promising, intelligent teenager who has just been accepted to MIT. Like all teenagers, she decides to go out and party to celebrate her success, and has a few too many beers. Like far too many teenagers, she decides to drive even though she’s too drunk. On the radio, she hears about the discovery of a new planet – closer to earth than Mars, that has just become visible. Distracted by the news, and the alcohol running through her system, she runs a light she shouldn’t, and ends up crashing into another car – killing a young boy and his mother, and leaving the father, John, in a coma.
Four years go by, and Rhoda is let out of prison. She doesn’t want to rebuild the life she lost, and decides to take a menial job as a high school janitor. She hears that the father is out of his coma, and goes to his house to apologize and make amends. But she is too scared to go through with it. He doesn’t know who she is, and she lies and says she works for a house cleaning service offering a free trial period. In the years since awakening from his coma, he has become a recluse, living alone in an isolated house, and it could certainly use a good cleaning. He accepts her offer, and then invites her back the following week. At first cold and standoffish, eventually he starts to warm to Rhoda. He hungers for human contact, even though he never realized it, and soon they start to grow closer. Of course, sooner or later, we know that Rhoda will have to tell John the truth.
What is interesting about Another Earth is how it pairs a fairly standard human story, with its sci-fi elements. We have seen many movies about the aftermath of a car crash before – and countless movies where two characters become close while one of them is hiding a secret that could destroy their relationship. But this side of the story is handled well. Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the screenplay, does an excellent job of planning the emotionally shutdown Rhoda. And William Mapother does a great job playing the even more emotionally shutdown John. These two wounded characters help to heal each other, even if their relationship is based on a lie.
And yet, it’s the science fiction aspect that I think elevates the material. As more information becomes available about this new planet, they start calling it Earth 2, because it seems to be an exact replica of Earth. And when a scientist first makes radio contact with Earth 2, and ends up talking to herself – with the exact same memories – the implications become even more profound. The film, in its much simpler way, reminded me of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, which was also about a new planet that in some ways replicated earth. That film was about trying to resurrect someone out of your memories, and how the result will always be incomplete. This one looks at just how small and meaningless our lives are in the grander scheme of things. And if there’s another planet identical to ours, and another you, identical to yourself, what does that really mean? Are we not all special, unique individuals made in God’s image?
Another Earth has a few missteps along the way. The essay contest that Rhoda enters, that will allow the winner to be among the first people to travel to Earth 2 strains credibility to an absurd degree, but at least is necessary for the plot to function. More distracting was the sexual relationship that develops between Rhoda and John, which is simply not needed. These two share a deeper connection than sex. And the subplot involving the other janitor that Rhoda works with adds little.
But those are minor complaints to what is an uncommonly thoughtful indie movie. In the past few years, I have grown weary with the regular formula we see coming out of American Indies, that are basically all comedy/dramas about dysfunctional families who learn to cope with their problems. The formula has grown old. Another Earth is a step in the right direction – and proof that the best science fiction movies are not all about special effects, but about the ideas behind them.