Another Earth (2011)
Dir. Mike Cahill
Starring Brit Marling, William Mapother, Kumar Pallana
I actually got to see this one at the DC premier a few weeks back, and was thinking I’d write about it before the film came out to show you all how in the know I am. But I tried to write about it a few times, and just found I didn’t have much to say. It’s funny, I can ramble for 5,000 words about CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, but when it comes to this carefully made, sensitive, thoughtful, mysterious little film, I’m kind of tongue tied. But it’s real good and I figure I ought to spread the word now that it’s getting a bigger release, so here’s my attempt.
First off, ANOTHER EARTH is a slightly different film than it appears to be. It’s described as a sci-fi love story, but really it’s a fragile drama about regret which happens to have a central metaphor which is visualized a little more bluntly than most films would dare. If it has a genre, it’s not sci-fi but rather magical realism. Yes, there’s that other Earth hanging in the sky the whole time, but it’s not something the film really feels necessary to explain or even explore. It’s an idea, hanging up there – an idea which hangs over the whole film but seems both starker and more painful when it suddenly seems to force itself into the real world.
The story is a simple one; smart, gorgeous, up-and-coming college freshman Rhoda makes a mistake one night. She has a little too much to drink, and on her way home hears a story on the radio about a new planet which has just become visible in the night sky. She looks up at the sky out of her car window as she’s driving home, and slams into another car carrying a family of three. The wife and son are killed, and Rhoda spends the next four years in prison.
She emerges a withdrawn, ghostly wisp of her former self. Her ambitions and dreams are long gone, and her guilt has slowly taken over every minute of her waking life. She’s got nothing to live for, and doesn’t think she deserves to find anything anyway. Some people ask if she’s going to go back to school, pick up where she left off, but of course she can’t. She gets a janitorial job at her old high school, pulls her hood as far over her face as she can, sits alone in her empty old room. Unable to do anything else, she finally goes to apologize to the husband who survived the car crash (Tom Cruise cousin William Mapother), but loses her nerve and tells him she’s the cleaning lady instead. He doesn’t know who she is, and the two gradually begin a tender relationship which brings both of them out of their shells and, gingerly, back into the world. But hovering above their heads the whole time is the surreal sight of a doppelganger Earth, with all that implies about what might have been.
That’s pretty much the whole movie. There’s not a lot of plot to it – hell, there’s not even a lot of dialogue—but the film makes you feel the crushing weight nestled on poor Rhoda’s slender shoulders and the bottomless despair she and her victim feel about their lives and the world. Co-writer Marling gives a crushingly internalized performance, which is mirrored nicely by Mapother’s almost perversely externalized pain. It’s these two performances, and the subtle way they change as the characters emerge from their hazy nightmare, that sells the film. In a film in which the central metaphor is so unsubtle that it hangs from the sky, you can rightly expect some convenient plotting which may stretch your credulity to the breaking point –and for some, probably beyond. But there’s a profound emotional realism in the characters which the actors painfully draw out into the open. Their conflicts may feel a little manufactured, but their agony never does, and its weighty enough to make the film’s seriousness feel earned. Without those performances, the film would be a mess of plot mechanisms and overt symbolism. With them, those same plot mechanisms and overt symbolism seem absolutely necessary to describe the surreal emotional metaphysics of extreme human experience.
Any film can show you a guilt-ridden protagonist agonizing over the way things might have been different. But how many have the conviction to literally dangle it over her head the whole film, letting it grow gradually closer and closer like a gathering storm? It’s a stunning image, made all the more potent as you consider what it means for our ruined protagonist, and for us. Even if the film isn’t the least bit interested in the science of what’s happening, making it real gives it unexpected heft. It’s no longer hypothetical to imagine your life being different, imagining yourself making different choices. You might be able to meet that version of yourself, they’re out there ready to present you with all the painful might-have-beens that you might otherwise be able to dismiss through faith, fate, divine plan, or random chance. Another Earth. Another you. Maybe the you you always wished you were. Maybe the you you always feared you’d be. Maybe --maybe most horrifyingly-- the same you you inevitably are.
It’s not a perfect film, but it boldly and sometimes uncomfortably puts this infinite existential heartbreak under a microscope. And then fills the sky with it for good measure.