[This was originally posted as part of our Los Angeles Film Festival coverage. It is reposted here to coincide with the film’s national release.]
Another Earth made a large splash at Sundance this year, with many claiming it to be the rare science fiction film that stays utterly grounded, despite a fantastic premise. It came out of nowhere and wowed all the bigwigs that weren’t too busy watching Kevin Smith stroke himself onstage. Having finally seen it for myself, I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that it’s the most grounded sci-fi film you’ll see this year, in a summer of transforming robots, crappy CGI, and horrifying alternate realities where the cars have taken over.
Does Another Earth deliver in its promises of realistic melodrama over a science fiction background?
Rhoda (Brit Marling) is a recent high school graduate with a bright future until, after a night of heavy drinking, she gets into a car accident, killing the wife and son of composer John Burroughs (William Mapother) on the night that a strange new planet is discovered, a planet exactly like Earth in every way, right down to the people. Four years later, Rhoda has been released from prison, and the planet is abuzz over the growing Earth 2 in the sky. Rhoda, trying and failing to apologize to John for her terrible act, winds up in a growing relationship with the now broken man. All the while, Earth 2 looms in the sky, and Rhoda hopes that, maybe, she can get a second chance up in the familiar, yet utterly foreign territory.
In case you couldn’t tell from that paltry description, where a girl that has committed a horrible crime has a chance to literally go to another Earth, this is a film all about second chances. This is where I have my biggest issue with the film. Bear in mind first, though I thoroughly enjoyed Another Earth. I’m always super happy when someone manages to use science fiction without resorting to aliens or crazy, nigh-magical technology. Granted, there’s some magic science in this film as well. The gravitational pull of an entire planet close enough to Earth to make out serious detail with a simple commercial telescope would destroy both planets. But I’m digressing.
At any rate, the presence of the second Earth is a massive cake topper on a film based on a metaphor that’s not exactly handled with anything resembling subtlety. Rhoda seeks some sort of redemption from John, posing as a weekly cleaning woman picking up after his filth. John, in Rhoda, sees some sort of attempt at restarting his life after four years of mourning and madness. The notion that they both want some other place to restart and make everything better is reasonably obvious. The fact that there is literally a second Earth, with mirror versions of themselves, that maybe are just slightly different, doesn’t exactly hammer you over the head with the metaphor, but it’s holding the mallet and looking menacing, at least.
With that planet-sized issue out of the way, the film’s really quite good. While Brit Marling is occasionally flat, there’s a lot of fantastic interplay between actors, a lot of internalizing emotions, rather than letting them show. I found myself contemplating her performance more and more, after watching the film, and realizing how much I actually enjoyed it. William Mapother, who most of you know from Lost and not much else, continues to be one of those fantastic character actors that rarely gets a chance this good to stretch his considerable acting chops. His portrait of a man completely destroyed by horrible happenstance rocked my very foundations. I hope he gets more chances like this as time goes on.
The film, being an independent, varies a touch wildly in terms of cinematography. There are a number of night shots that suffer from the godawful digital graininess that I usually only see in crappier cameras for college projects, not in an honest-to-God feature film. I’d say it looks like someone rubbed dirt on the film, but there’s no film to speak of. Other than a few shots with weird, oddly snappy zooms, it’s shot with an odd style that treads the line between cinema veritie and more traditional cinema. It makes for a certain intimacy with the characters, necessary since we spend almost every frame with Rhoda.
Another Earth, despite some admittedly large hurdles, is a very competent marriage of sci-fi presupposition with emotional storytelling of a caliber hard to find even in movies that don’t feature a large Earth looming in the sky. This is Mike Cahill’s first film, and here’s hoping that we see great things from him in the years to come.
Jenika Katz: Maybe I’m just happy with my life, but I’ve never gotten the obsession so many people have with second chances. That being said, Another Earth takes the subject and makes it incredibly interesting. Movies with mostly-silent protagonists can be hard to relate to, but I was right there with Rhoda every step of the way. While the camera work is a bit off sometimes, there are some absolutely stunning shots to balance them out. I do wish the science fiction aspect of the plot was pushed further, since there are so many interesting places the movie could go with it other than metaphor. As it is, Another Earth is one hell of a relationship drama. 79 – Good.