Science fiction of this sort is difficult to come by. There are no monsters or explosions in Another Earth, only human drama and quiet reflection spurred on by the sudden appearance of a planet similar to our own in the heavens above us. The film requires of its audience a willingness to look at themselves and consider their lives, to thoughtfully consider what gives them hope, meaning, and what truly terrifies them. In many ways, the film treads similar waters as Solaris, which was adapted into two very different movies by very different filmmakers: by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972, and by Steven Soderbergh in 2002. In that story, which was based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem, a man travels through space to a distant planet where the space station orbiting above has gone silent, and he encounters versions of his past and a planet that may or may not be a ghost of our own. Here we never venture out into the cold emptiness of space, and the drama remains strictly on terra firma, but this second Earth hangs ominously over every sentence, human interaction and otherwise rote situation in the film, and transforms them into something new and exciting.
Another Earth, co-written by and starring relative newcomer Brit Marling and directed by Mike Cahill, begins on the night of the planet’s first appearance, with Rhoda (Marling) running head-on into a family with her car while she’s looking up at the sky to see the new world. The man’s pregnant wife and young son are killed, he enters a coma, Rhoda goes to jail. Four years pass, and upon her release, Rhoda gets a job as a janitor at the local school because she wants a job where she doesn’t have to interact with people. One day she tracks down John Burroughs (William Mapother), the man whose family she killed, in an earnest attempt to apologize, but is unable to speak to him, and ends up making a cleaning service that she is giving out trials for in order to attract new clients. Reluctantly, he invites her in to clean his house, which has fallen into disrepair.
When not cleaning, Rhoda spends a lot of her time alone, in her room or at work, and befriends a blind janitor working at the school with her, who eventually makes himself deaf as well, perhaps unable to handle the burden of the world. She is a figure of quiet resolve, trying to get her life together, to find her path and to heal the wounds of her past. We learn at the beginning of the movie that space has always fascinated her, ever since she saw sequential photographs of Jupiter swirling out there in the vast emptiness. We are also told that she was once a bright student, and that people seem saddened by her choice not to pursue academics. Given the events in her life up to this point, I can’t say I blame her for wanting some time to do a non-thinking job while trying to reintegrate.
The relationship that grows between Rhoda and John grows slowly, hindered by their shared pain and the potentially calamitous turn everything will take once she reveals who she really is. Together, though, for the time being, they begin to heal one another as they sift through their personal pain, and Rhoda begins to think about the potential of her future again. For four years she has been in prison, crippled mentally by the tragic event that sent her there every single day, and when she is released, she’s almost incapable of stepping out the front door. The same goes for John, who has become a layabout living in his own filth and wallowing in despair, until he is forced into some sort of daily interaction with another human being. The tragic dimension of this relationship truly comes into focus when considering just what the implications of Earth 2, as it’s called in the film, are exactly.
The actual physics of the situation are never addressed directly in the film, but from what I know about current theory (and from some of the discoveries made about the planet in the film) I have deduced that Earth 2 is most likely not a separate planet at all, but a mirror image of our own, butted up against us in a sort of rift in the dimensional reality of our own timeline that has, for whatever reason, at this point become visible to us, and making interplanetary travel between two dimensions possible. But the planets share more than the same continental and atmospheric structure, and it appears that for everyone on Earth, there is a duplicate life being led on Earth 2.
In a pretty stunning revelatory scene, we watch the first contact between the planets on television with Rhoda and her family, and are stunned when the person on Earth 2 is the exact same person on our planet, down to the details of her childhood and things she bought on her visit to NASA all those years ago. But another hypothesis is brought forth – one that is not only possible, but probable: once the planets became visible to one another, their synchronicity changed, and now that they are aware of duplicate versions of the other (including all human beings, places, etc.), the behavioral patterns could have changed, and thus the timeline split and continued on in very different ways on each planet.
A corporate venture is offering flights to Earth 2, and Rhoda enters an essay contest to win a free trip on the flight, detailing the reasons she deserves the chance. The trip itself would be enough of an escape – a chance to get away from the mess her life has become – but the thought that her life might be completely different because of a rift in time is almost beyond her wildest hopes. It’s scary, sure, that another Rhoda might be sitting up there living the same life, but what if the accident never happened? What if John’s family is still alive and he could spend some amount of time with them? And what if he does spend time with them, or she with herself; what would the implications then be for the planet, the Universe and our souls?
The film admittedly raises more questions than answers, but as Rhoda and John move toward the inevitable revelation that she is responsible for his family’s death even as they have fallen in love with one another, it also attempts to understand the questions of astrophysics as interhuman concerns, which is a bold move. There is no reasonable way we could ever assume happiness can come from Rhoda and John being together, but their relationship is necessary to their survival at the time, and it forges beyond that when Rhoda sacrifices her own chance at discovering the answers she’s seeking in order to make way for John to answer his own burning questions about his family on Earth 2.
Brit Marling will no doubt create a huge sensation for herself following the release of this film and her other Sundance hit, Sound of My Voice, which she also co-wrote. I think she has a demanding screen presence, and here she is magnetic. If she weren’t the focus of every scene, she’d have it from the audience anyway, because she’s illuminating. And her writing is very, very humanistic, and smart, and funny when it needs to be. Hopefully she will go on to do more truly great work (she is already landing acting roles, independent of this film’s reception, on sitcoms like Community, where she recently played a supposed lesbian).
The film is shot very well on what I assume is a medium resolution setting on a high end digital camera, maybe HD, maybe not, giving it just the amount of grain that works well for the film’s low-key genre aesthetics, and the shots of Rhoda walking down the street in slow motion, with the second planet above her in the sky, reminded me of those beautiful ethereal shots of Charlotte Gainsbourg walking through the forest toward her own sort of reckoning in Antichrist, which is fitting given the fact that Another Earth often finds its protagonist filled with enough existential dread to fit in nicely alongside that harrowing experience. The tiny moments that do take place bookended by the film’s opening and closing “Big” events are given their space, with many a shot framed around the constant swirl of dust and other particulates in the air that imbue the whole affair with a quiet paucity that suggests not only that of the universe, but our own genetic makeup of much smaller, swirling parts as well.
I haven’t done this film justice. To do so I would need a book that rambled on about string theory, Camus and Freud and Jung, science fiction, genre theory and many more subjects. There are a lot of ideas crammed into Another Earth’s concise 95 minute runtime, and though it kind of throws a lot of things at the wall and sees what sticks, there’s enough that resonates to make the experience of unraveling its mysteries as intriguing as it is profoundly unsettling. The final shot, in which Rhoda comes face to face with herself is, after what we have just been through as an audience, a simply stunning final image, one crammed with possibilities, both positive and negative. The future is totally unknown, the physics of the encounter a total mystery. But don’t worry, I haven’t given anything away. As an audience, we all see this event coming some time before the film’s credits role. What we make of it is another matter entirely.
4 out of 5 stars.