Cinema Review: Another Earth
Currently on General Release at selected UK Cinemas.
This is what the future looks like. No, not a carbon-copy of our own Earth hanging in the sky while the human race below starts asking itself soul-searching questions like “What if there’s another me?” and “I wonder if they’ve made the same mistakes I have?”- pining for redemption on Earth 2.
No, it’s the future of independent filmmaking because Mike Cahill’s debut feature Another Earth, with its sci-fi high concept, stellar performances and beautiful, lush, cinematic set pieces, was made guerrilla-style for under $200,000, starring an unknown (but not for long) actress and received proper, grown-up distribution through Fox Searchlight.
The creative team behind the film come out of it with the world (Earth 1 that is) as their oyster and both will go far. Lead actress Brit Marling in particular looks set to rise and rise, even if they never do make that Amanda Knox biopic. She also co-wrote the script with director Cahill, and this shows in the depth of the main character, Rhoda, through Marling’s performance.
Cahill shot and edited the film himself, keeping costs down by using his hometown and even his childhood home as the principal location, with family and friends as extras. The terrible car crash which opens the film was shot at night, on a stretch of road surreptitiously cordoned off by a State Trooper who went to school with Cahill.
Of course, they say of anything beautiful that you shouldn’t look at the price tag, but in this case the achievement of the film in telling an emotionally and philosophically sophisticated story on such limited resources suggests that, given a few more years of falling shooting costs and improving post technology, independent film could be about to enter a golden age. Another Earth is not this moment – the execution is ever so slightly patchy – but it is so nearly a masterpiece.
Rhoda is just 17 years old – drink-driving, on her way back from a graduation party, when she is distracted by a new planet in the sky but as she leans out of the window for a closer look, she ploughs into another car. John (William Mapother), a professor of music at Yale, is the only survivor as his wife and son are killed instantly.
When Rhoda emerges from prison four years later, old beyond her years and heavy with guilt, the new planet has been revealed to be a second Earth, apparently identical to ours in all respects. But rather than follow her ambition to study Astrophysics at MIT, Rhoda hides herself under a baggy hoody and a beanie hat and takes a job as a school janitor, shuffling like Cain through the streets and subways of a world in the midst of an identity crisis.
One day she looks John up and finds him destroyed - an alcoholic - shut away in his house, also wearing a baggy coat and a beanie. You begin to suspect the woollen hat might be some kind of metaphor. Pretending to be a cleaning service offering a free trial, Rhoda gains entry and starts tidying John’s house. This too might also be some kind of metaphor – especially once the two of them become intimate with one another, the house gets cleaner and the beanies come off.
But of course, there’s still that pesky mirror-Earth in the sky, and in one of the film’s neatest scenes, we see the head of SETI make first contact with her mirror self on Earth 2, raising all kinds of profound, intriguing but ultimately not very dramatic questions about identity, fate and the self. Now Rhoda’s wandering and introspection begin to be punctuated by voiceover from a folksy male physicist helpfully outlining some of these thematic and philosophical issues.
This is where the film’s weaknesses begin to show. Cahill and Marling have taken an intriguing concept and spun it into a mature, character-driven and watchable drama, full of resonance. The two planets drawn towards each other echo the fateful collision of the two cars and the clinking of whiskey glasses as John and Rhoda fall for one another but they have also succumbed to the indie curse of facile profundity.
John breaks off from a passionate argument with Rhoda to explain Plato’s Allegory of the Cave for no reason, and the climactic inciting incident is Rhoda watching a TV broadcast of a scientist explaining the Many-Worlds interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. A token blind Native American spouts gnomic platitudes.
Another Earth feels like two separate films which, like the two Earths, never quite connect with one another. One film is a Sci-Fi epic of self-discovery with profound philosophical implications for humanity, the other a worthy but contained Sundance-type Indie about love, loss and redemption in small-town America. Sort of Contact meets Winter’s Bone – or rather, doesn’t quite meet.
Maybe this is the point, and why the film (bar the above excesses) feels so refreshing and affecting, hinting at depths that are never ultimately explored. As the helpful physicist-voiceover man points out, the answer to the question “What would it be like to meet yourself?” is that we do meet ourselves, every day. We all, in a sense, already live on Earth 2. We just don’t look at it that hard. All of the stargazing, Voyager probing, particle colliding curiosity of mankind is directed outward, but the greater mystery, the greater beauty and the greater drama may be within and between ourselves, here on Earth, in small towns, in our own heads, hidden under our beanies.
FMV Rating: ***