Another Earth

Forgive

Sometimes you have to wait to read a book or see a movie, because you need to be in a “certain place” first.  I’m still not sure what place I had to be in to go see Mike Cahill’s Another Earth, but having been interested in this fascinating piece of art since its announcement, I waited a good amount of time to get there.  So long, in fact, that I caught the final showing in the entire district, at Albany’s Spectrum 8 Theatre, about five minutes from where I was born.

The story begins with Rhoda Williams (writer and actress Brit Marling), an MIT-bound high school graduate.  At a party, she has too many drinks, and drives home to the sounds of a local hip-hop radio station.  The DJ mentions in passing that a new planet has been discovered, and according to scientists, it’s capable of supporting life.  Tonight, it will appear as a blue spot somewhere close to the moon.  Peering out her window and spotting the blue spot in the sky, Rhoda speeds through an intersection and smashes into an SUV, killing the wife and young child of John Burroughs (William Mapother), whom we later learn is a respected composer and college professor.  He is rendered comatose in the accident.

Four years later, John comes out of his coma and Rhoda is released from prison.  Her family (parents and obnoxious younger brother) pick her up as casually as if they were picking her up from school.  We are spared any of Rhoda’s prison experiences, and no specifics are hinted at, but it’s clear that her drunken accident and jail time have thoroughly recolored her personality.  Once an ambitious, talkative, social young woman, Rhoda now sleeps in the attic, owns nothing, hardly bathes, and doesn’t talk.  The very act of existing seems an unfair burden.  Interactions with her family are awkward.  She sees a job counselor, and after the latter comments on her impressive intellectual aptitude, refuses to do a job that requires thinking or talking to people.  She settles for a maintenance job at a local high school, where she works alongside elderly janitor Purdeep (Kumar Pallana) and barely looks a year older than the students who graffiti the bathrooms.

Content to scrub her days away (a well-achieved analogy for a deeper figurative “cleaning”), Rhoda decides to apologize to John for her mistake.  Discovering him in a house not unlike a pig’s wallow, she loses her nerve and claims she is from a cleaning service.  He “hires” her to fix up his disaster of a home, and through one thing and another, they become friends, with Rhoda never revealing who she is.  According to the rules of narrative (especially in film), she must reveal it eventually, and the scenes leading up to this conversation are unbearably tense.

The new about Earth 2 is always progressing, but wisely kept in the background until it becomes relevant to a choice Rhoda must make.  Astronomers and physicists are brought in to attempt first contact when the planet moves visibly closer to Earth.  After various tries, contact is finally achieved, only to reveal that this planet is an exact mirror of Earth, with all of the same people, who have followed the exact same life paths up to this point.

Here is a film that could have broken the rules of narrative we all accept and expect.  Rhoda’s depressions are spot-on accurate and heartbreaking.  She drags herself through work, punishing herself with a job she’s not suited for.  One night, she wanders out into a field, strips completely naked, and lies down in the snow until she passes out.  She awakens in the hospital with her family, who appear as though they almost prefer she’d died.  The only thing that doesn’t seem to have changed is her predilection for outer space.  She pays close attention to the news stories (the only reason we get to see/hear them), and when a billionaire entrepreneur holds an essay contest (500 words or less) with a grand prize of traveling to Earth 2, Rhoda enters.  Eventually, a theory comes out stating Earth and Earth 2 were identical in every way until the very moment we made contact.  After that exact moment, lives changed, different decisions could have been made, and all bets are off.  What if the version of Rhoda on Earth 2 didn’t kill John’s family?  What if they’re still alive and she’s an MIT student?

Cahill’s cutting, his use of the handheld camera, and his joint decisions with Marling (co-writer of the script) about what is said and what is shown, are astounding for a film of this age.  We understand the connection between Rhoda and Purdeep even when nothing is said.  They’re both lost souls, punishing themselves for past sins.  They understand each other and speak their own language, and we understand it without having it fed to us.  Their final scene together (after Purdeep has blinded and deafened himself because he can no longer “stand to see himself everywhere”) displays a mastery of visual storytelling thus far unmatched this year.  There are also tiny details which could have been ruined with fat blocks of dialogue – on a few occasions, John offers alcoholic drinks to Rhoda.  She apprehensively lets the liquid touch her lips, but never really drinks it.  She never says to John (and by extension, the audience), “I don’t drink because [insert lie for strained tension].”  We know why.  The tension is increased tenfold because she does this without John even noticing.  Despite the temptation to expand the background sci-fi into a full-blown mythology, the film wisely keeps us with the characters, namely Rhoda, and we’re barely allowed to care about anything she doesn’t care about.

On the verge of a romantic relationship with John (likely twice her age), Rhoda wins the essay contest and decides to go to Earth 2.  Yes, she reveals her true identity to John and yes, unfortunately, he reacts how you’d expect him to.  Thankfully, this revelation doesn’t solve anything; quite the contrary.  The conflict we had at the beginning of the story now resurfaces and needs to be resolved, and a certain character’s actions provide a solution so pure, so wholeheartedly selfless, that we’re simultaneously satisfied and pining for a different way.  This action doesn’t go unrewarded, however.  The final scene of the film is something I cannot spoil.  I’m willing to wait until you see the film to talk about it.  Suffice it to say it’s a stinger and a surprise without being a twist or a sequel hook, it’s a massive payoff without being contrived, and it fits the movie’s fictional science without providing a be-all-end-all solution to the complex issues of an entire planet (much less two).  I suspect lesser filmmakers would have gone for something much, much different.

The background story of Another Earth is more the stuff of science than the stuff of fiction.  At least, it’s based on a long-standing (but generally debunked) theory that a mirror Earth exists directly opposite us in orbit, and because it’s an exact mirror, the sun is always blocking us from seeing the other planet.  The way this information is conveyed in the narrative (non-glamorized news and narration by real-life scientist Richard Berendzen) is much stronger than the overwritten mumble-science of a film like Primer.

One of this story’s frequently asked questions is, “What would you say if you could meet yourself?”  John’s answer (“Hey, you up for a video game?”) and Rhoda’s answer (“Better luck next time.”) are so rigidly different and the performances of Marling and Mapother are so honest that after this film, even with such a seemingly preposterous background, I had to think about my answer.  Whatever that “place” was, I was there.  It was a long ride home.

Another Earth (2011); written by Mike Cahill and Brit Marling; directed by Mike Cahill; starring Brit Marling and William Mapother.

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