– Another Earth (2011)
The year 2011 was the season for cinematic astrology.
What’s it going to take us to lift us out of our collective funk? A new planet in Earth’s sphere of influence?
And given our recent spate of bad luck, it’s probably going to collide with us, anyhow…
“…and now you begin to wonder, what else is different?”
Another Earth is the story of young Rhoda — an entrancing Brit Marling — a promising M.I.T. student who, on the night of the discovery of a duplicate Earth becomes involved in a terrible car accident.
While racing down a seemingly empty street and furtively gazing the night sky for signs of the new world, she crashes her speeding car into a parked vehicle. In that vehicle is a Yale music professor, John Burroughs (William Maypother) and his family. John’s wife and son die instantly on impact. John’s son, in fact, is thrown from the car entirely, and we see his little body shattered on a nearby side-walk.
Among those, of course, is her own.
All the potential, all the possibilities of her life, have evaporated. Instead of pursuing her once-promising education and career, Rhoda opts instead for a kind of continuing purgatory; opting to become a janitor at a local high school.
One day, Rhoda learns that a company called “United Space Ventures” is promoting an essay contest for a “free ride” on a spaceship bound for the mysterious new neighbor, Earth Two. Rhoda writes an essay about her situation for the competition, noting that, historically speaking, explorers have not necessarily been bold heroes, but rather convicts, felons and people otherwise “living on the edge.” Thus she is a perfect candidate. Why does she want to go? To escape life on an Earth where she is a criminal; to run away from herself and her deeds.
And if that’s the case, there may another Rhoda out there. And another John Burroughs. And there’s the possibility, too, that events have unfolded differently…
“Is that me better than this me?”
A great line from the original and remade Solaris suggests that humans don’t go to outer space looking for aliens…but for mirrors.
Another Earth pivots on this notion, depicting the tale of a mirror planet that offers the characters opportunity for…well…reflection.
If the “alternate” Rhoda of Earth Two didn’t negligently kill John’s family and didn’t go to jail, what did she become? What could she become?
And even if she became something different, was her destiny and “core” personality the same on both Earths? The film’s final scene suggests that no matter what path she eventually takes, Rhoda will find a way to win the contest to visit the “other” world. She will be involved either as an M.I.T. graduate, or as a self-loathing janitor doing penance for her crimes. The last image of the film, though determinedly ambiguous, makes this idea, at the very least, implicit.
Another highly-underrated film in science fiction film history, Gerry Anderson’s Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969) also dealt with the concept of a mirror Earth. Though that film more overtly concerned international espionage and space travel, it shares with Another Earth a fascination with the idea that “there’s another you out there.”
In other words, what would you tell yourself, if you met yourself? Don’t stop at that stop-light?
Or, as Rhoda cynically notes “better luck next time?”
Would we have legitimate wisdom to impart to our alternate selves? Would — and should we –even categorize a duplicate self as…self? Or, given the “broken mirror” hypothesis which states that the two planets severed their synchronicity at mutual discovery, are the doppelgangers authentically two separate, distinct individuals?
For much of its running time, Another Earth is mostly a character study, gazing at a woman who has made a terrible mistake and would like to undo it…but can’t. Your patience for the film will likely depend largely on your acceptance of Rhoda’s plight, and understanding that human beings are intrinsically irrational creatures. There’s simply no rational way to explain some of Rhoda’s behavior towards John as portrayed in the film. In fact, at times it feels downright cruel, since she is hiding crucial information from him.
But that too is part of the movie’s unique alchemy: would even a duplicate “you” always understand why you do things a certain way, or act in a certain fashion? Probably not.
Director Mike Cahill doesn’t yet boast the technical chops of a Malick or a von Trier, but hell, how would you like to be launched into that select company your first time out? What I mean is that Another Earth, though intriguing and well-done, lacks much of the visual distinction you’ll find on display in The Tree of Life or Melancholia. It’s shot cheaply, and Cahill doesn’t meaningfully use form to reflect content. There’s a lot of hand-held back and forth in the composition, but nothing that really augments the screenplay’s meaning or internal heart.
Yet in the final analysis what makes Another Earth shine nearly as brightly as The Tree of Life or Melancholia is Marling’s excavation of the Rhoda character. I wrote above that Marling’s performance is entrancing, and it truly is. You’ll quickly fall in love with Marling’s face, and with the tragic character she assiduously and painstakingly crafts. Given the personal nature of the story and the thematic through-line of “what would you say to yourself if you could?,” the strong, intimate portrayal of Rhoda really carries the film.
Netfix describes Another Earth as a “sci-fi romance,” and that’s a laughably bad description of the film’s content and aura. Like Melancholia or The Tree of Life, this enterprise is about cinematic astrology, about how a cosmic body touches the human soul, and forever changes it.
Take it on those terms, and in the context of this strange 2011 movie trend, and you won’t be disappointed.