When 17-year-old Rhoda (co-writer Brit Marling) learns she’s been accepted to study astrophysics at MIT she celebrates by doing what any teenager would; she goes out, she gets drunk, she dances, snogs someone and generally has a good time. Driving home drunk, she’s distracted by the sudden, inexplicable appearance of a new planet in the night sky and, as she cranes her head to look at it, slams into a family station wagon sending talented composer and Yale music professor John (William Mapother) into a coma and killing outright his wife and child.
Four years pass and the new planet hangs fat and blue in our sky, visible day and night, looking like a replica of our own Earth. Rhoda, now 21 and on parole, gets out of prison and takes a job as a cleaner at her old high school. Ignoring her parole officer’s suggestions and encouragement that she should think about college or get a job more befitting her intelligence and ability, Rhoda, still haunted by the lives she destroyed, is intent on punishing herself; moving back in with her parents, turning her old bedroom into a Spartan cell, scrubbing excrement and vomit from school toilets as a penance and indulging in half-hearted suicide attempts. John meanwhile is out of his coma and is a mess both literally and mentally. Hiding from the world in a slovenly, dilapidated farmhouse, he’s become an alcoholic recluse, drinking his days and nights away and living on Meals on Wheels.
Driven by guilt, curiosity and a desire to atone in some way, Rhoda inserts herself into John’s life, cleaning him up spiritually as well as physically. When contact is eventually made with the new planet it proves to be a precise replica of our own in almost every way that matters even down to its population who are our doppelgangers. Their world exactly mirrors ours except in minor ways, different decisions on Earth 2 having led to different destinies for our reflected selves. As the scientists and philosophers debate the significance of Earth 2, Rhoda and John enter into a tentative romantic relationship, two damaged husks finding some measure of solace and rebirth in each other. Being a minor when she committed her crime, John is unaware it was Rhoda who destroyed his life but she starts to find the burden of her secret intolerable. Could Earth 2 offer a second chance…?
Typical, isn’t it? You wait years for a film about a rogue planet and it’s Earthly ramifications and then two come at once. But while Lars von Trier’s interminable Melancholia slowly, so sloooooowly, disappeared up its own maudlin røv (Danish for ARSE), Another Earth is a far more metaphysical journey, a seamless blending of Kieslowski and Tarkovsky, which uses its science fiction premise and draws upon quantum physics, multiverse theory, semantic externalism and Hilary Putnam’s Twin Earth thought experiment as a backdrop for what is a deeply soulful, intimate exploration of grief, guilt, love and redemption.
With a voiceover by astrophysicist Richard Berendzen, Another Earth is a small-scale tale full of big ideas; as much a tender, halting love story as it is a meditation on the choices and paths our lives can take. For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost. The mirror Earth that hangs over the characters represents not just the promise of a second chance but the possibility that somewhere in time and space you never needed it; you took a different path. It’s the road not travelled, the promise of a better life somewhere in the Universe, the chance to remake yourself, redeem yourself; whether that’s on another planet or in the next street is immaterial. It represents hope.
Star of Lost and cousin of a better-known, vertically-challenged Xenu-botherer, William Mapother is excellent as the grieving, broken John giving an unpredictable performance of emotional rawness while virtual unknown Brit Marling is fantastic as Rhoda. Gawky and awkward, a stranger not just to the world but seemingly to her own skin, she gives a performance of grave vulnerability and steely control, her Nordic beauty hidden for the most part by dirty overalls and a wooly hat, her hesitant, hunched physicality suggesting a wounded creature intent on protecting itself. Tight, low-key, subtle and controlled, she’s a revelation, a talent we’re going to be seeing a lot more of.
Another Earth examines the extraordinary through the lives of two ordinary, damaged individuals and finds beauty, mystery and complexity. At its core it asks the simplest and most profound questions: What if there was another you? What would you say if you met? When Rhoda is asked her answer is flippant, sardonic: “Better luck next time,” but like all cynics she’s a bruised romantic, desperate for another chance.
Intelligent, compassionate, sympathetic and profound, Another Earth is a science fiction movie for people who don’t like science fiction. This is the film The Tree Of Life should have been.
Brit Marling & Mike Cahill
Brit Marling, William Mapother, Matthew-Lee Ehrlbach, Kumar Pallana