Destined to be embraced by the indie-worshipping crowd and those who love to endlessly debate what an ambiguous ending “really” means, Mike Cahill’s Another Earth strikes me as a terrific concept. It’s also a film with a sometimes-good screenplay, some striking images (all of which you’ve seen in stills) and reasonable (but far from great) performances—all brought up short by ditheringly amateurish-looking direction and cinematography. As such, this was one of the summer’s bigger disappointments for me. It’s a film with a premise too intriguing to ignore, but one that falls frustratingly short of its concept. Others will disagree.
Another Earth‘s big draw is the sudden appearance in the sky of—well, another earth. (It’s probably wisest to not get into the science of this, which isn’t important to the film anyway.) Its first appearance happens to coincide with MIT-bound high-school graduate Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling, who, yes, looks a little mature for the character) on her way home from a party. She’s not entirely sober and unwisely tries to see this amazing new planet while driving. At the same time, accomplished composer John Burroughs (William Mapother) and his pregnant wife (Meggan Lennon) and young son (AJ Diana) are driving in the other direction. Rhoda plows into them, killing wife and son, and leaving John in a coma.
Four years later, Rhoda is released from prison, but finds herself still mired in her own guilt. John is out of his coma, but is somewhat disabled and has become a reclusive drunkard. Rhoda thinks she can expiate her guilt if she confesses to him—since she was a minor, he has no idea of her identity—and sets out to do so, but finds herself unable to say the words. Instead, she comes up with a yarn about being from a cleaning service that’s offering a free sample cleaning. Against his basic instinct, John takes this opportunity to get some of the cluttered mess he lives in taken care of—planning on just taking the freebie and calling it quits. Instead, he ends up hiring her. Perhaps he likes the company, or maybe he’s tired of living in the chaos of his rundown farmhouse. Not surprisingly, the two become friendly—and on the path to more.
In the meantime, Rhoda has entered a contest to get a seat on a shuttle to this other Earth, called Earth 2. In the intervening years, it’s been learned that the planet is an exact duplicate of our planet—even down to its inhabitants. In other words, if you’re on Earth, you have a double on this “new” planet. For Rhoda, the prospect of finding a new life is very tempting. There’s also some thought that the synchronous nature of the two planets was broken the moment they were aware of each other—meaning that the event that ruined both Rhoda’s and John’s lives may not have happened out there. Of course, when her idea of making the voyage started, she hadn’t become involved with John in this complicated situation on Earth 1.
Conceptually, this is fascinating stuff—even though the idea of a person guilty of killing someone and trying to make amends without the survivors being aware of exactly who they are isn’t exactly new. It at least dates back to Ernst Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby (1932), where the French soldier who killed a German family’s son visits the family and accidentally becomes a second son to them. The really intriguing shift here is the alternate-Earth question—and that’s something Another Earth allows to be eclipsed by the increasingly impossible relationship between Rhoda and John, which more often than not means the film goes on endlessly in the details of everyday life. This will strike many as realism. I guess it depends on your taste for watching housework and clothes folding, but I found long stretches of this—well, kind of boring.
The film was definitely done no favors by Cahill’s visual style, which relies very heavily on a faux cinéma vérité. This means the film is relentless in assaulting the viewer with pointless, jerky zoom shots, arbitrary focus shifts and dubious jump cuts. This presumably is to make the movie look more “real”—like some kind of heavily scripted, voyeuristic documentary. What it really does is constantly remind you that you’re watching a movie. Your assessment may well differ. I don’t mean to disuade anyone from seeing Another Earth—it’s definitely a worthy attempt—but for me it’s ultimately a great concept in need of a better movie. Rated PG-13 disturbing images, some sexuality, nudity and brief drug use.