Another Earth offers a tantalizing promise of doppelgangers, alternate realities, and observations on duality, yet instead of giving us a heavily layered Sci-Fi plot, it serves up a carefully constructed character piece with the Sci-Fi as little more than a piece of philosophical garnish. Consequently, it may not be as Sci-Fi as some may like, but it has just enough contemplation of the deeper themes to add substantial depth to the already interesting story of a woman seeking our redemption for a crime of youth. For Mike Cahill’s first narrative feature, Another Earth shows us that he can craft more than just a neat little drama; he created a whole world of stories just waiting to be told.
Since she was young, Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling) dreamed of a career in astronomy and she had the academic ambitions to back it up. Better still, her recent graduation and imminent entrance into MIT has aligned with the discovery of a second Earth seemingly identical to our own. After a celebratory party she drives home intoxicated and plows into the car of John Burroughs (William Mapother) killing his wife and son, leaving him to wallow in depression as Rhoda serves out her jail time. Upon her release, Rhoda takes up a position cleaning a local high school and eventually seeks out John, posing as a maid service to get into his home and slowly get him back on his feet. Over time their relationship grows and comes to a head just as Rhoda learns of an exciting opportunity that could potentially undo all the hurt caused by her irresponsible action.
The majority of the film’s success depends entirely on the sincerity of Rhoda and John’s relationship as it blossoms from two people suffering a loss, one intellectual and the other deeply personal, with a healthy dose of guilt. In prison, Rhoda had no idea what became of John, the famed composer, but she gets a glimpse into his life as she cleans his house room by room, with each passing day giving John a chance to make his first human connection since he shut himself off from the world. Both Marling and Mapother’s performances seethe with that type of silent desperation that only others enduring a similar pain can notice. Brit Marling brings a nuanced sadness to the many scenes where it’s just her soaking in the silence of her childhood home, stewing in the agonizing realization of how her future has since escaped her reach. Another Earth marks the role most revelatory of Mapother’s talent, as we finally get to see him play a complicated character with authentic depth ranging from the initial depression to a growing sense of hope which leads into a tremendous breakdown as the world he’s formed from the ashes of his family’s death crumbles once again around him. Mapother’s performance here is brilliant.
Where Another Earth flirts with a Sci-Fi premise is less in the presence of a second identical earth and more with the concept of parallel timelines for the two planets and where they cease to be the same, which allows for an interesting look into the duality of choice and the human desire to alter the past. In this case, Cahill and Marling, the film’s co-writers, perform a delicate dance between retroactive storytelling and philosophical Sci-Fi, asking audiences what they’d do if they had the option, not to rewrite history, but jump in to a slightly modified timeline. If there’s no guarantee that the problem would be fixed but in order to find out you had to leave everything you know behind, would you do it? How badly do people need a shot at redemption or closure?
As a side bonus, Another Earth leaves its final scene vague in its intentions. With two possible interpretations of the final frames, the ambiguity seems perfectly suited to Another Earth’s statement on human relationships: they’re not obvious, and they’re seldom easy. Does the ending embrace the split reality concept or, like most of the film, is it more of a commentary on the difficult choices people make when it comes to owning up to past mistakes or running away? Director Mike Cahill has an answer, but it doesn’t have to be yours.
Despite a title and poster that scream Sci-Fi flick, Another Earth is first and foremost a character-driven drama expertly acted and written, and It’s not hard to imagine it as the stepping stone for Cahill, Marling, and Mapother to mainstream success as it does just about everything right. It deserves to be seen just as both Brit Marling and William Mapother ought to snag more leading roles based on what they’ve shown here.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
The combo pack includes the film on Blu-ray, DVD, and as a digital copy. For those who finish the film and decide they were intrigued by the sci-fi premise as more than just the frame for a story about human character, they'll be happy to discover further creation on the film's development and the ideas behind it in a few featurettes. Beyond those, you'll find some deleted scenes and a music video for one of the songs from the fantastic score by Fall on Your Sword. If you were a big fan of the character-study aspect of the film (aka the plot), then you'll enjoy the two featurettes with William Mapother and Brit Marling.
"Another Earth" is on sale November 29, 2011 and is rated PG13. Drama, Sci-Fi. Directed by Mike Cahill. Written by Mike Cahill & Brit Marling. Starring Brit Marling, William Mapother.