What if you were stuck forever, face to face with the worst thing you had ever done? No matter where you turn it’s all around you, defining every moment from that day forward. And what would you do if you had a chance to leave it all behind, and maybe make a fresh start. In their feature film debut, Another Earth, screenwriters Mike Cahill (also director) and Brit Marling (also actress) tackle this weighty subject, and they do an absolutely brilliant job of it.
Four years ago on the winter solstice, two lives were frozen. Rhoda Williams (Marling) was driving back to her New Haven home after a party, excited from her recent acceptance to the astronomy program at MIT. John Burroughs (William Mapother), professor of music at Yale, was stopped at a light, talking with his pregnant wife and young son in the back seat. Rhoda was drunk; her car crossed the dividing line and slammed into the front of John’s car at full speed, killing John’s wife and son and putting John into a coma. Rhoda served four years in prison.
One other thing happened that night: scientists announced the discovery of a new planet, faintly visible as a bluish dot in the night sky. By the time of Rhoda’s release, it hung twice as large as the moon and was clearly recognizable as a carbon copy of Earth, steadily drawing nearer. United Space Ventures announced a contest to win a seat on the first mission to send people to this new world.
Meanwhile, Rhoda took a job cleaning West Haven High School rather than attempt to re-apply to college, and still her crime haunted her. She sought out John’s home, thinking to go there and apologize. But at the moment of truth she loses her nerve and tells him she’s offering a free trial housecleaning for a maid service. She starts to do whatever she can to help pull him out of his miserable slump. And she writes in to the contest, hoping maybe to find some way out.
Though it may technically fall under the umbrella of science fiction, I have to urge you not to scratch too deeply at the surface of how the second Earth comes about. On seeing Source Code, no less than William Gibson wrote that “if you think this movie is about time travel, then you probably think Moon was about cloning”, and the same sentiment applies here. This movie fits into the tradition of using a somewhat scientific setting to allow us to address our own concerns — here about identity and redemption. And it’s impressive how little Cahill and Marling need to pull away from the real world in order to dig so deeply; most of the impact of having another Earth is about what its existence means to us rather than any specifics about its nature.
For her feature film debut as an actress, Marling carries the leading role with no real trouble. Mapother — to date primarily a character actor — gives what is easily his best performance yet. Cahill shows an uncanny talent as a director, cinematographer, and editor to squeeze value out of a meager production budget, not to mention a natural eye for a scene. And again, the writing is nothing short of stunning; overwrought at times — maybe more theatrical than cinematic — but with a solid emotional core and an arc that draws the audience in and sends them out with more questions than they brought in, the way only a great movie can.
Worth It: absolutely.
Bechdel Test: fail.