Another Earth

Movie Information

The Story: A guilt-and-redempton story set against the sci-fi premise of the discovery of a doppelganger Earth. The Lowdown: A brilliant concept that the film seems less inclined to explore than the human drama that accompanies it. The forced indie-production style doesn't help, but the film remains intriguing if not wholly realized.
Score:

Genre: Sci-fi Drama
Director: Mike Cahill
Starring: William Mapother, Brit Marling, Jordan Baker, Flint Beverage, Robin Lord Taylor
Rated: PG-13

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.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

21 thoughts on “Another Earth

  1. Xanadon't

    “It’s a film with a premise too intriguing to ignore, but one that fall frustratingly short of its concept.”

    Couldn’t agree more! When someone last night asked me, How was it?, the first word out of my mouth was “frustrating”. Yep. A great concept too often undone by poor decisions, both stylistically (“dubious jump cuts”- THANK YOU for that!) and with regards to narrative. For the most part I really enjoyed the film’s hard line toward realism, and thought it offset the big, astronomical happenings in a charming and refreshing way. I was looking forward to a rather understated and deeply HUMAN film.

    With that said it took every thing in my power to suppress an audible “Oh C’mon!” as John and Rhoda frantically fumbled their way down the “path to more” that you allude to. Before we know it, quiet moments buzzing with conflicted emotions- moments that carried potential to fascinate- devolve into rote outbursts. In the manner of “Character A mistakenly washes late wife’s blouse. Character B gets angry and yells. This should resemble exactly the way Angry Characters shout in every other movie. And “Action!””

    The subplot involving one of our favorite Wes Anderson perennials seemed a bit clumsy and overly contrived as well.

    Really I don’t mean to dissuade anyone from seeing this movie either. The overall story possesses much that will fascinate and offers a considerable amount of big ideas to ruminate over. And perhaps it’s because there were sufficient flashes of what the film could’ve been that I was disappointed. I imagine someone more forgiving of uneven direction and a few suspect contrivances will find much to enjoy.

    At any rate, great read and I’m happy you found plenty in the film to celebrate, however reservedly.

  2. Ken Hanke

    The subplot involving one of our favorite Wes Anderson perennials seemed a bit clumsy and overly contrived as well.

    Agreed, but it was nice to see him.

  3. Big Al

    While off to a slow and somewhat dissappointing start, this film got better as it went along and the ending was truly a shot out of the dark. I could literally talk for HOURS on the possiblities that the ending suggested for Rhoda and John. Also, the “Earth 2″ device did not seem neccessary to the central theme of the story until the ending, then it all tied together.

  4. Libby Sparks

    I thought it was one of the better movies of the year, but I’m a sucker for this type of idea, so I might be a little biased.

    I think the concept was fulfilled in a way that didn’t beat you over the head but instead subtly allowed the viewer to extract many different meanings and possibilities, from the contemplative voice-overs all the way to the mind-boggling ending. To me, the quite focus on everyday life between the two characters simply magnified the reality of how different their lives could have been, and in no way seemed boring or contrived. I also felt that the hand-held shots added the weight of claustrophobic intimacy in a way that wouldn’t have been achieved with static shots. I didn’t find them to be a problem, and it certainly wasn’t like watching Breaking the Waves or anything.

    Sure, it could’ve gone further in many ways, but I enjoyed the subtlety and openly interpretative nature of the script.

    I think the movie was made for around $20k, so it does have a bit of an amateurish feel to it, but the performances were so great you don’t even realize it.

  5. Ken Hanke

    I thought it was one of the better movies of the year

    I wouldn’t dream of trying to change your mind. I mostly found the film dullish and the ending didn’t boggle my mind. Then again, one person’s profound is another person’s “So?” and vice-versa.

    I am curious where you got that $20,000 figure. If it’s true, then the version in theaters must have been seriously polished by Fox Searchlight.

  6. John

    I am curious where you got that $20,000 figure. If it’s true, then the version in theaters must have been seriously polished by Fox Searchlight.

    I saw an excerpt on CBS news Sunday morning, where they were interviewing the main girl. Evidently, she’s the girlfriend of the director, and I believe some of their friends might’ve been part of the cast as well. They talked about how impressive it was that the film was made for $20K, and how it was a hug hit at Sundance. I was really interested (or just curious) to see this, but now I’m a bit more reserved on spending my limited funds. Perhaps this will be a rental.

  7. Ken Hanke

    They talked about how impressive it was that the film was made for $20K, and how it was a hug hit at Sundance.

    I’d have to have that budget explained to me. A $20,000 budget would have been remarkable even 30 years ago. And the words “huge hit at Sundance” mostly scare me anymore.

    I was really interested (or just curious) to see this, but now I’m a bit more reserved on spending my limited funds. Perhaps this will be a rental.

    Well, you’d definitely need to catch it this week, because unless The Guard tanks — and I doubt it will — this’ll be gone by next Friday, since Sarah’s Key opens there (and at The Carolina) then. While I believe that all movies benefit to some degree by being seen in a theater, I don’t think much will be lost by seeing Another Earth on DVD.

    By the way, are you retiring your usual screen name?

  8. Dread P. Roberts

    A $20,000 budget would have been remarkable even 30 years ago. And the words “huge hit at Sundance” mostly scare me anymore.

    I understand. For whatever it’s worth, the girl (whose name escapes me) at least seemed like a nice person in the interview.

    By the way, are you retiring your usual screen name?

    No, I was using someone else’s computer, and for some reason it didn’t pick up when I logged in, so I just typed my name real quick to comment.

  9. Ken Hanke

    I understand. For whatever it’s worth, the girl (whose name escapes me) at least seemed like a nice person in the interview.

    Brit Marling — and I’m not doubting she’s a nice person. I’m also not so much doubting the budget — though as I say any such figure must be before it would have been gussied up by the distributor — as I’d like them to tell me how they did it, especially with a cast of largely professional actors.

    By the bye, Trick ‘r Treat is definitely down for the Oct. 27 movie.

  10. A lot of people who think the territory of ANOTHER EARTH is new (I won’t blame them, as this IS fresh indie territory) seem to have overlooked the fact that there had been an earlier film that made good – perhaps better – use of this concept. JOURNEY TO THE FAR SIDE OF THE SUN (1969) – from the same people who gave us the “Supermarionation” TV shows FIREBALL XL-5, SUPERCAR, STINGRAY, THUNDERBIRDS and CAPTAIN SCARLET AND THE MYSTERONS, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, and starring Roy Thinnes from TV’s THE INVADERS – also revolved around a plot concerning a Doppelganger Earth.

    Here, both story and concept goes neatly hand-in-hand with solid visuals, Hollywood production standards, and a creepy twist ending right out of THE TWILIGHT ZONE (which actually had a 4th season hour-long episode with the same premise). An astronaut (Thinnes) with issues of his own back on Earth, ventures out into space and lands on another Earth, only to discover that he has been mistaken by the exact doubles of his superiors on Earth, who have also launched HIS double to visit HIS earth, and has to convince them that he is in fact from the other Earth and needs to return there. And while it may be dated in its approach to the material, and in some of the model effects (by Derek Meddings), it’s still intriguing sci-fi that holds its own and never “dumbs down.”

    I recommend we give it a look – such as it is, this nearly obscure gem on DVD.

  11. Dread P. Roberts

    By the bye, Trick ‘r Treat is definitely down for the Oct. 27 movie.

    I intend to be there, and I look forward to reading your review. I know it’s not the greatest thing out there, but I hope you had fun with it. I actually was planning to catch some Hitchcock, and talk to you about it on Tuesday. I was all excited, and then it just slipped my mind Tuesday evening. I’m terribly scatterbrained about such things sometimes.

  12. Ken Hanke

    A lot of people who think the territory of ANOTHER EARTH is new (I won’t blame them, as this IS fresh indie territory) seem to have overlooked the fact that there had been an earlier film that made good – perhaps better – use of this concept. JOURNEY TO THE FAR SIDE OF THE SUN (1969)…also revolved around a plot concerning a Doppelganger Earth.

    I haven’t seen this since it was new, which means I haven’t seen it in 42 years when it played the bottom half of a double bill at the State Theater in Lake Wales, Fla. I hadn’t even thought about it, but you’re quite right about the similarity, though I do remember not liking it much in 1969. Bear in mind, I was 14 in the summer of ’69 so that may mean little — and it might be significant that I remember it, but not the A feature.

    Whether Another Earth got its concept from this I have no idea. However, it should be stressed that Another Earth has only one effect (if you’ve seen the poster, you’ve seen it) and takes the premise in a very different direction.

  13. Ken Hanke

    I hope you had fun with it.

    That’s a fair assessment. It was fun and “spooky” and I liked its rather circular, Nicolas Roeg-like structure.

    I actually was planning to catch some Hitchcock, and talk to you about it on Tuesday.

    Well, you could catch some Fred and Ginger and talk about it this week, or wait till the next week and catch some Ken Russell and talk about it.

  14. Chip Kaufmann

    JOURNEY TO THE FAR SIDE OF THE SUN (actually called DOPPELGANGER in the U.K.) was one of my favorite sci-fi films of the 1970s. I have it in my DVD collection and, for me,, it still holds up rather well although some of the effects (created in the wake of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) and especially the clothes/make-up have dated accordingly.

    I haven’t seen ANOTHER EARTH yet so I can’t make the comparison but it was great to see someone else mention JOURNEY. You forgot to mention that shortly after JOURNEY, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson gave us SPACE 1999. Another Brit sci-fi favorite from the same time period is Hammer’s FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH (QUATERMASS & THE PIT in the U.K.).

  15. Ken Hanke

    Not sure I’d brag about Space 1999. Anyway, we’re running Quatermass and the Pit next month at the THPS (Oct. 6).

  16. Chip Kaufmann

    I was referencing Jeffrey De’s comment but I should have added the following after SPACE 1999… (but don’t hold that against JOURNEY). Unfortunately a lot more people are familiar with SPACE 1999 than with JOURNEY TO THE FAR SIDE OF THE SUN. Glad to see QATP at THPS.

  17. DrSerizawa

    As I recall Doppelganger had extremely convincing miniature effects. It’s been a lot of years but I also remember a scene where Roy Thinnes is staring into a mirror that was very very creepy. In fact I’m a bit intrigued to see this again so it’s on its way via Amazon.

  18. Chris Lambert

    Put me in the category that loved this movie.

    I read that Mapother accepted $100 a day.

    Earth 2 is getting closer and closer and closer. Does this imply a collision? An overlapping of dimensions (or whatever phenomenon has brought Earth 2 into view)? Or will Earth 2 just pass really effing close as it continues on its orbit?

    I feel like one could argue that an arc of the film is doomsday.

  19. Ken Hanke

    I read that Mapother accepted $100 a day

    And he was worth it.

    I feel like one could argue that an arc of the film is doomsday.

    The advantage of a movie that’s written as vaguely — or ambiguously, if you prefer — as this is that you can argue just about anything. The science here is very shaky (insert argument that it’s all just an allegory here), but my impression is that it isn’t supposed to be increasing in size and that its size changes are supposed to be the same atmospheric trick of the moon appearing to be larger when nearer the horizon.

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