Director : Mike Cahill
Screenplay : Mike Cahill & Brit Marling
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Brit Marling (Rhoda Williams), William Mapother (John Burroughs), Jordan Baker (Kim Williams), Flint Beverage (Robert Williams), Robin Lord Taylor (Jeff Williams), Kumar Pallana (Purdeep)
The title of Mike Cahill’s Another Earth refers literally to a new planet exactly like our own that suddenly appears at the far end of the solar system and moves steadily closer year after year until it dominates the sky. On another level, though, the title alludes to the all-too-human longing for the ability to go back and redo some moment in time that irrevocably altered our existence. For the film’s protagonist, a gifted, MIT-bound 17-year-old named Rhoda (Brit Marling), that moment occurs on the very night that the second Earth is discovered and she is involved in a horrific car accident that destroys both her life and the life of John Burroughs (William Mapother), a musician and composer.
The violent intertwining of Rhoda and John’s lives is the film’s primary focus, and it has the stripped-down emotional force of a Raymond Carver short story, albeit one that takes place within an intriguing, but often secondary sci-fi framework. Rhoda’s guilt over her actions and what they have done to John draws her to him even though any relationship they might have is doomed to end badly; they share their status as damaged souls, but John is unaware that Rhoda is responsible for damaging his. While Rhoda at first intends to reveal herself to John and apologize, she ends up becoming a part of his otherwise isolated and morose life and--perhaps ironically, perhaps fatefully--bringing some joy back into it. Marling, a relative newcomer who also co-wrote the script with Cahill, and Mapother, a veteran character actor who you’ve probably seen in a dozen supporting roles, are both quite excellent in playing their characters’ broken hearts and quiet torment. We get so used to seeing them in various states of despair and grief that, when a smile breaks through, it’s like a ray of sunshine piercing the darkness.
While the film’s emotional terrain is skillfully rendered, the film’s visuals are a mixed bag, with Cahill (who acted as his own cinematographer) inexplicably falling back on gimmicky pseudo- vérité aesthetics like shaky camerawork and, most irritating, quick zooms, all of which grate against the film’s funereal tone and chamber drama intensity. The aesthetic faults are not terminal, though, and Cahill, whose only other feature is the little-seen 2004 documentary Boxers and Ballerinas (which he co-directed with Marling), proves to be quite adept at conveying surprising depth with a visual minimalism that suits the film’s relatively low-budget, independent origins (the film is also aided greatly by the haunting musical score from the multimedia group Fall on Your Sword, whose mix of electronics and traditional orchestrations works beautifully with the film’s intertwining of science fiction and chamber drama). A concept as potentially enormous as the arrival of a second Earth is effectively muted in favor of the characters’ interpersonal struggles, and when it does become a dominant part of the narrative via Rhoda entering a contest to win a seat on a privately funded spaceship to the newly discovered planet, it is ultimately in keeping with the film’s overall focus on the slippery nature of guilt, grief, and redemption, which finds its most striking evocation in the film’s unexpected, wonderfully oblique, and beautifully rendered final image.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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