Film Review: Another Earth (2011)

One refrain I always go to when judging a really strange film is "I'd rather see something interesting not come together than see something boring done without interest." Another Earth is always on the brink of doing something really special. This low-budget (estimated to be well under $150k) sci-fi/drama about a young woman finding the man whose family she ruined in a car crash the night the world discovered a second earth is fascinating. It's everything and nothing you would expect it to be. With a title like Another Earth, you would expect the film to focus on the sci-fi. It doesn't. It focuses on the psychological ramifications of finality and death for life and knowledge.

Starring writer Brit Marling and directed by co-writer Mike Cahill, Another Earth refuses to provide any easy answers to the audience. The deadly car crash that launches the film as well as the sudden appearance of a second Earth is never explained. Like low-budget genre classic Night of the Living Dead, you never find out the why behind anything. There are hints of dialogue and news reports that point out possible reasons but never enough to fully grasp the reality. The important subject is immediacy and the two lead characters fight against the passage of time at every step.

Brit Marling's Rhoda is a young woman who made a big mistake. She got as a teenager, got behind the wheel, and smashed her car into another. She served enough jail time after the trial to bring us four years into the future. For Rhoda, there is no future, only the past she destroyed with a stupid decision. She refuses to sleep in her childhood bedroom, making her own cell in the attic. She doesn't want to think, only clean things up for other people, and even goes so far as to force herself into the life of her surviving victim.

That victim is John, played by William Mapother. Once a professor of music at Yale University, he is now a depressed and anxious man with memory loss issues. His wife and child were killed in the accident and he was sent into a coma that kept him out of commission for the entire trial. He doesn't want to think about the present, only the lack of resolution for his old life that he can barely remember.

The omnipresent image of a second Earth slowly emerging for the sky works effectively as a metaphor for the growing relationship between Rhoda and John. As John starts to develop a life, Rhoda dreams of winning an essay contest to send her on the maiden voyage to Earth II. He wants to grow and she wants to escape but neither can run from the past until they've reached some kind of closure with the accident neither will face.

Marling and Cahill's screenplay suffers from a myopic view of the whole scenario. We occasionally see Rhoda interact with other people--a fellow janitor at the high school, an old high school friend, her parents and brother--but the vast majority of the film is trapped in her head. Even when dealing with John, it's undoubtedly Rhoda's story. However, Rhoda is so static as a character because of the thematic conceit of the film that she needed to spend more time away from her victim to show the real impact four years of isolation has had on her life. The film fails to offer enough range to let some really great ideas breathe onscreen.

Cleanly shot on digital stock, Cahill manages to build up a great deal of momentum and life with this very narrow perspective. At some point, you know from very early on in the film what has to happen, but like Earth II, it remains beyond the reach of the audience. The reward for sticking through the film is a very thoughtful sequence of intense scenes in the final act of the film.

Another Earth is sure to please the science fiction fan looking for something quieter and the drama fan looking for something a little bit different. This is certainly one of the more novel low-budget films to get mainstream distribution in quite some time. There is a good reason for this. Even in its flaws, it's hard to turn away from the slowly but persistently growing narrative of Another Earth.

Rating: 6/10

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Film Review: Certified Copy (2011 US, 2010 France)

The Link Rally: 28 December 2011