Film Review – Another Earth

In fiction and in film, in our collective imaginations, there have been a lot of visions of what extra-terrestrial life might look like. The most appealing of these populate worlds like Star Trek—the humanoid species we could easily communicate with. These are slightly more enticing to think about than bacteria in traces of water, though I admit I still get excited whenever scientists think they’ve found that. The other vision is what we really want though, isn’t it? Someone out there in a similar situation to ours? What about exactly the same situation as ours?

I didn’t know much going into Another Earth, except that it made an impression at Sundance, along with the briefest of descriptions based on that title: another planet is discovered, that seems to be exactly, exactly like Earth. I think viewing this film with minimal knowledge was the right way to go, so I don’t want to dive too deeply into the rest of the plot. But, if you’re any sort of moviewatcher, you’ll see the devastating event of the first few moments barreling at you well before it occurs. High school student Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling, who also co-wrote) drives her car home from a party. She’s a physics and astronomy buff, just done celebrating her admission to MIT. The radio speaks of this planet that’s appeared in the sky. She wants a look, leaning out of her car window. Meanwhile, a family—wife, husband, young son in a car seat—sits at a stoplight. In my theater seat, I physically braced myself for the collision.

William Mapother, best known to me before this as creepy Ethan on Lost, plays John Burroughs, the man whose family is killed in this accident. Mapother had a long resume before Lost, but hasn’t broken into stardom. Though this is a relatively small film, I have to think that it can only speed up that process for him. He gets to show an incredible amount of range as we see John’s depression after this horrible event, and how he might start to climb out of the well, eventually. We compare this to Rhoda, whose life also will never be the same, and who bears the responsibility for it all. Marling’s performance is equally impressive, and the two of them as the core of the film ground a script that is for the most part quite solid, but does want to slip into melodrama at certain moments.

An indie drama set against a backdrop of a fascinating sci-fi premise, the film explores what it means to have your life irrevocably changed by one event. It’s the sort of thing I think we all fear, if it hasn’t already happened to us. Here, the added cruelty is this other, looming reality, the mysterious mirror-Earth in the sky, the physical reminder of unattainable escape from one’s life. That idea is twisted on its head a bit, though, when Rhoda discovers a contest to win a trip to Earth-2, on the first ship that will attempt it. Through writing her entry essay, she examines herself in a way it seems she never had before—had maybe actively avoided. The idea of actually traveling to Earth-2 grows in her mind and in society’s mind. Would it really be an escape, though? What would they find up there?

Even as the sci-fi elements of the story become more and more central, we don’t need much at all in the way of special effects, though we get some lovely shots revolving around this second Earth looming above. Director (and co-writer) Mike Cahill keeps the aesthetic of the film for the most part firmly in drab suburban colors, with the swirl of space occasionally glimpsed in the sky. Though at times the direction is noticeably heavy-handed—for example, giving in to unnecessarily dramatic use of slow motion in brief moments—I was encompassed by the atmosphere of the film. I was drawn in by the main characters and the suspense over what would happen in their individual lives and with the revelations regarding Earth-2. It all carried me along until an ending scene that is one of the closest to perfect I’ve ever seen, flooring in its simplicity, its meaning, and, frankly, its sheer coolness.

Brit Marling has made it clear in 2011 that she is someone to watch. She also co-wrote and co-starred in another indie film, Sound of My Voice, that was well-received at festivals, including Sundance. I roll my eyes at the term “it girl,” but I’ve seen it applied to her already. I certainly know that after seeing her work here, I’ll eagerly check out whatever her next projects are, both behind and in front of the camera. Even if indie drama or subtle sci-fi doesn’t sound much like your thing, watching someone nail the role she wrote for herself is a satisfying pleasure that I would highly recommend. I’m confident this film is a step on the way to a career for Marling that will outlive trendy “it girl” status.

Another Earth opens in select cities today.

Final Grade: A-

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Brandi is one of those people who worries about kids these days not appreciating black and white films. She also admires great moments of subtlety, since she has no idea how to be subtle herself.

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