Another Earth (2011, Mike Cahill)
Mike Cahill’s odd sci-fi drama made some headways during the Sundance film festival earlier in 2011, generating some very positive buzz from movies fans and the critics fortunate enough to catch it then. Its festival success was, in fact, large enough for Fox Searchlight to pick up the film for a distribution deal. The movie continued to make the rounds of the United States festival circuit, with the lone exception, it seems, being its screening this past weekend at Fantasia. One should be mindful when entering Cahill’s film however. The poster and title might evoke hopes of a mind-bending sci-fi epic the likes of which we have not witnessed in some time. In reality, Cahill’s project is a far more intimate, character based story than that, which is not a bad thing in of itself, provided the writer-director can juggle two ingredients: the awesome sci-fi aspects and the small scale human story.
The movie quickly establishes, in a refreshingly unflashy manner, that another planet, more specifically another Earth is approaching our own home. At first it is but a blue speck in the sky, mostly visible at night. Protagonist Rhoda Williams (star and co-screenwriter Brit Marling), a bright, pretty and university bound young women is mesmerized by the sight of the new discovery, to the point that, one night while driving home, she loses focus on the road and smashes into a van carrying an entire family. Sadly, everyone save the father, John Burroughs (William Mapother) is killed in the accident. Rhoda’s future is virtually annihilated as she is easily convicted for her reckless crime and serves four years in jail. During this time, the new planet, baptized Earth 2, has approached our atmosphere even more. Scientists have determined, by means that remain mysterious to the viewer, that our sister planet is practically identical to our own, from the continents to the cities themselves. Rhoda, now a free woman and working as a high school janitor, is intrigued by the prospect of visiting Earth 2, an opportunity which knocks via an online competition. However, another challenge must be dealt with: facing the lone survivor of her accident four years prior and apologizing...if she must muster the courage to do so.
Just to reiterate a point made earlier, people should keep their expectations in check when watching this movie. While Earth 2 is visible at times in the sky throughout the movie, both Mike Cahill and Brit Marling have opted to make use of the mysterious world for a more thematic purpose than an actively sci-fi, story-driven purpose. The character of Rhoda, who has seen almost all her of dreams shattered as a consequence of her carelessness, envisions Earth 2 as an opportunity for redemption. At various points in the movie there are radio station hosts, television show hosts and more importantly central figures to the story discussing the possibilities of what life is like on Earth 2, even what it might mean if, in the event that inter-planetary travel is permitted on a massive scale, we all came face to face with the other versions of ourselves on the other planet. What would we say? Would this other version of ‘me/you’ have committed the same errors and tasted the same successes as ‘me/you?’ These questions and more are fascinating and undoubtedly ones that I would ask myself were our real world confronted with an identical situation. The answers to those questions are, however, left deep, deep under the surface of the story. In all truth, there are times when it feels as though the questions are merely being asked just because those would be logical questions to ask if this all really happened. That being said, given the circumstances of the two characters the viewer follows most, Rhoda and John, they feel à propos within the context of the plot, if only because they are two being whose lives have been dramatically changed for the worse and our, in their own idiosyncratic ways, desperate for a life-lines, especially Rhoda.
Even though it would have been, let us say ‘neat’, if Earth 2 genuinely played a stronger role in the narrative, its role as the catalyst for Rhoda’s more personal and intimate actions are nonetheless satisfying and intriguing enough to hold the viewer’s attention. All the while wondering what another version of herself might be like, her hopes of winning a contest that would send her off to Earth 2 mean that efforts must be spent on reconciling with her past, both internally and externally by revealing her identity to John Burroughs, who does not recognize her when she first visits after a day of work and poses as a cleaning lady offering a free trial of her services. Her original intent was to honestly apologize for all the incalculable pain she surely caused him, but she gets cold feet and ends up just cleaning his kitchen. John is sufficiently impressed with her work to ask her to come again the following week, and so begins the film’s episodic second half in which Rhoda slowly makes John a little bit happier with every passing week. Their interactions feel genuine for the most part, and seeing these two people re-discover a little bit of joy in their lives should appeal to most. It should be noted that both Brit Marling and William Mapother deliver convincing performances as people slowly emerging from their cocoons of despair. The journey is emotionally rich, although director Mike Cahill, with his calm, hand held cinematography style, keeps things at a certain cold distance to as to avoid any schmaltz. Overall, it is very rewarding to discover a film which makes use of such a hard sci-fi concept for the purposes of a rich psychological drama.
There are a few missteps, particularly in how the Rhoda/John relationship reaches its apex. Further plot points shan’t be revealed, but suffice to say that after a while, there is a sense of inevitability regarding a relationship beat that really should not happen at all, but does nonetheless, as if Mike Cahill felt that there was no other way to make his point about these two bruised souls. The culmination and aftermath of what they have happens rapidly, unfortunately feeling forced and not entirely earned. There is also a secondary character, an elderly janitor who works with Rhoda at high school, who seems to serve no other purpose than spewing a few lines of spiritual wisdom. Thankfully, the character is not featured prominently, but his appearances, at least when he opens his mouth, feel more like intrusions than welcomed cameos.
Another Earth should see a wider release in the near future, judging by the fact that Fox Searchlight thought of it highly enough to make a deal. For those appealed by the more high-brow science-fictions project, this is certainly up your alley. For those expecting something a little bit more breezy, Another Earth is not a strong recommendation.