'Another Earth': Familiar but Effective
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
There are moments in "Another Earth," the new indie sci-fi film from actress/co-writer Brit Marling and director/co-writer Mike Cahill, that felt as if I'd seen them before, or that the pieces were stretched thin by their ambition and not connected by anything other than proximity. It was, early on, easy to think that Cahill and Marling had taken a standard-issue early-to-mid-'90s indie film plot about fate and forgiveness and grafted it to a high-concept premise with some sci-fi notes but very little actual sci in the fi, an uneasy and unnecessary union of Hal Hartley and M. Night Shyamalan, or Allison Anders and Rod Serling.
So then, why can I not shake it? For all of those very real complaints and observations, there are moments in "Another Earth" where what we see onscreen has the grace and power of life as we know it, and where the sci-fi plot points do not make us think about that fantasy, but, rather, about our reality. Those moments are not solely about the alert, cautious intelligence in Ms. Marling's eyes and the striking features they are set in, either, although both are substantive and used to effect here. Rather, they're about the classic definition of irony, which is contrast through art in the name of making us seriously think about what a thing really is by linking it to what it is not.
The opening scene defines the film: Young aspiring scientist Rhoda Williams is driving home from a graduation party a little buzzed, a little distracted. She sees a new light in the sky -- she knows the stars and where they should be, and knows when something is there that shouldn't be, even while buzzed. While distracted and entranced by the light in the sky, she crosses over the lane and runs a stop sign and plows into the car of a young family, a composer named John Burroughs (William Mapother) and his wife and child. She stumbles out of the wreck, bloodied and shaken, realizing she's killed a mother and her child.
She goes to jail; he goes to grieve. And the world goes on without them, abuzz with the fact that the object Rhoda saw is a new Earth -- not another planet that can sustain life, but rather an exact duplicate, equally distant from the sun, with the same continents and lights and cities. It's suggested, in fact, that right up to the moment someone on our planet saw it, it was an exact duplicate, and then and only then did we diverge.
Rhoda, a scientist in exile, can't stop thinking about the possibilities on the other planet; as a human, she can't stop thinking about what she did on this one. And so years later she seeks out the sad and medicated John, and her attempt to make amends turns to stammers, and she winds up cleaning his house. John doesn't know Rhoda was the driver who destroyed his life (she was a minor at the time), and they grow close. And become lovers.
It is hard to not roll one's eyes at this plot synopsis -- the sort of emotional O. Henry twist that indie film has mined for years -- but the bare bones of the plot do nothing to speak to the real and fragile flesh around them. There are human and small moments here among the big feelings and concepts: John and Rhoda bond in part over, of all things, Wii boxing; a flashback to Rhoda's hopes and dreams shows her with a copy of Asimov's "Foundation" nestled under three calculators; John coaxes an eerie, unearthly and beautiful melody from a saw. And the score -- credited to a group called Fall on Your Sword -- pulses under everything with sinister beauty.
Mapother is excellent. Audiences who know him only as the spooky Ethan Rom on "Lost" will get to see a slightly more broad use of his acting skills. Jonathan is broken but mending, and Mapother has a curiously all-American quality, like a modernized Grant Wood painting, that serves him well. Marling is a strong writer and performer -- she had not one but two films at this year's Sundance, with "Sound of My Voice" alongside this one -- and while her other film is the stronger of these two, this is still an intriguing and assured early film from a real talent.
"For all sad words of tongue and pen," wrote 19th-century poet John Greenleaf Whittier, "the saddest are these: 'What might have been.'" But just because they're sad doesn't mean we don't speak them. "Another Earth" is about the things many people have running through their minds: what if, why not, perhaps. Marling and Cahill's script is short on facts and long on feelings, but they do deserve points for thinking outside the box of their small budget -- and they also know how to craft an ending that will infuriate as many people as it will inspire.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.