A film review by Craig J. Koban December 7, 2011

Rank:  #17 


2011, R, 92 mins.


Rhoda: Brit Marling / John: William Mapother

Directed by Mike Cahill / Written by Cahill and Brit Marling

Very few science fiction dramas are as serenely compelling and thematically awe inspiring under such limited budgetary restraints as ANOTHER EARTH.  

Here’s a film made on a shoestring – approximately $200,000, an amount that would barely cover the catering on a TRANSFORMERS entry – that stirs the mind and soul without pyrotechnics, without a preponderance of CGI visual effects, and without mind numbing action and nauseating editorial extremes.  ANOTHER EARTH is an absolute triumph of ideas and imagination: it has so much to say about its underlining story and themes and it does so with very limited filmmaking resources.  Like great sci-fi, the film explores the relationships of its characters amidst the backdrop of its extraordinarily thought-provoking premise. 

ANOTHER EARTH is about contemplative ideas first and foremost.  If anything, the film’s highly fantastical premise is almost a secondary element to the narrative: the story is more about exploring grief, personal guilt, finding ways to atone for past misdeeds, and finally achieving personal redemption.  It’s also about how strangers manage to find themselves drawn together - by forces both direct and indirect – and how their relationship becomes a positive force of healing for each of them.  The core of the film is essentially salvation, but it also intriguing deals with notions of the self and what makes a person wholly unique.  What happens, say, to your distinct sense of individuality when faced with the proposition that you may have a doppelganger out there on a different planet or a different plane of existence that has miraculously crossed paths with your own world? 

The film begins rather unassumingly, especially for a sci-fi film: We meet a bright, attractive, and spirited young woman named Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling, also the film’s co-writer and producer) who has just been accepted in MIT’s astrophysics program.  Like any young woman with a bright scholastic career ahead of her, she celebrates her news by partying it up.  On the way home from celebrating she hears news on the radio of an incredible scientific discovery of a new planet in our universe that seems to have many of the same traits as Earth.  While driving she stares up into the heavens and looks at the bright blue body in the night time sky, which excites her natural love of astronomy.  Disastrously, she takes her eyes off of the road too long and plunges her car into another, which contained a father, mother, and their young child.  All are killed but the father, who is sent to a hospital in a coma. 

Four depressing years pass.  Rhoda is released from prison a broken and miserably defeated woman.  Her aspirations of college life have withered.  She has never found a manner of dealing with the deaths she had caused, which leaves her so emotionally distressed that she now reduces her days to wasting away at a janitorial job at a nearby high school.  Nonetheless, she still obsesses over the man who survived, a composer named John Burroughs (William Mapother from TV’s LOST) that has recently emerged from his coma, but has awoken a broken figure as well.  He too has had great hardships with dealing with his incredible life altering loss.  He wastes away his days too, laying around listlessly in his shabby and dirty rural home.  Rhoda decides that she must do…something…to amend for the ways she has unalterably affected John over the last four years.  She decides that she will show up at his door and pretend to be an employee of a housekeeping service in hopes of gaining employment with John at his home.  John begrudgingly agrees to let her in, seeing as his house has become a disgusting conglomeration of dirty clothes, dust covered furniture, and unkempt dishes.   



Concurrent to John and Rhoda oddly coming back together is the revelation that the planetary body discovered years ago is, in fact, an exact replica of Earth in every way, dubbed Earth 2 by the media, which debates the scientific implications of such a startling discovery nightly on TV.  It begins to hover closer and closer in the sky, dwarfing the moon, and consumes the thoughts of every soul on the planet.  A shuttle mission from our Earth to Earth 2 is planned and people that wish to be a part must write as essay proving why they should be included on such a voyage.  Rhoda enters, and while she is awaiting the results and tries to get closer to John to help ease his pains, an even more staggering discovery is made: Earth 2 is populated by exact duplicates of us that share stunningly similar life occurrences as well.  The prospects of making the trek to Earth 2, under the circumstances, now has more far reaching spiritual, scientific, and grander implications. 

One thing the film thankfully never gets bogged down in is science.  How, for example, did Earth 2 just appear in the sky?  Where did it come from?  Is it a naturally occurring celestial body that managed to just migrate to our Earth?  Is Earth 2 a parallel planet to our own that slipped through some fabric of space and time to meet up with our own?  Moreover, if a planet the size of Earth just appeared and hovered beside our world, how could the two bodies manage to occupy the same space in the universe without being negatively influenced by the other?  The two Earth’s normal cycles around the sun would no doubt be affected, as would their respective planetary forces.  Two bodies that close together in space would arguably destroy the other…right? 

It doesn’t matter.  The real point of ANOTHER EARTH is that we have two deeply suffering souls that come together, struggling with their respective identities and place in the world, and while they cope with grief they also must deal with the fact that they have duplicates on a planet right above them in the sky.  It’s one thing for characters to struggle with who there are, but it’s a whole other more complicated struggle dealing with notions of another you up there in the universe, which opens up a floodgate of so many absorbing questions.  Did Rhoda’s double, for example, kill John’s family on Earth 2? 

The two key performances are stellar, mostly because they have to work effectively off of one another, but also becomes they have to come off plausibly within a story that has such a fantastical premise.  The “other” Earth is almost used as a thematic device in the story and not so much as a scientifically credible one, which is the right choice.   Earth 2 adds a whole other layer of complex texture to the trials and tribulations of John and Rhoda, and even when their relationship travels down some familiar and predictable paths, the sheer enormity of the replica planet in the heavens weighs heavily on not just these characters, but on everyone on Earth as a whole.  Everything that happens in the story just has a limitlessly deeper and more profound meaning as a result.  No more is this apparent than during the last shot of the film – an audience-gasping moment if there ever was one – as one character is immediately forced to deal with the consequences of Earth 2 existing.   

The story behind the making of ANOTHER EARTH is almost as absorbing as the film itself: Brit Marling worked as a Wall Street investment banker before working on indie documentary films with director Mike Cahill, making his feature film debut with ANOTHER EARTH.  Mapother apparently worked on the film for $100 a day because he was so drawn to the material itself that a hefty payday didn’t really matter.  Ultimately - and despite the film’s genuine lack of big budget production artifice - ANOTHER EARTH is a thrilling and endlessly fascinating example of the sci-fi genre triumphantly marrying its far-reaching and meditative concepts with the quieter and more introspective personal stories of its characters.   It’s about normal people dealing with everyday human strife within an abnormal set of cosmic circumstances.  Redemption via a parallel universe?  That sounds utterly preposterous, but ANOTHER EARTH takes a potentially risky and laughable conceit and daringly and auspiciously crafts one of 2011’s most emotionally gripping feature films. 

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