Speculative science fiction that explores the uncharted recesses of human emotion
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
The discovery of a new planet – and a very close one at that, in every way implied – in the cosmos triggers a poetic reflection, a tragic inciting incident, that unleashes the “what if” potential that makes science fiction so damned intriguing. Of course, director Mike Cahill, working from a script he co-wrote with Brit Marling (who also takes the lead role here), is working squarely in the independent realm, where budgetary constraints don’t allow for computer generated or motion capture effects guaranteed to make first contact a mind-blowing three or four dimensional extravaganza of heretofore unrealized nightmares and dreamscapes. No, Another Earth scales back, way back, to the point that the film is not about exploring what lies beyond the stars, but instead, what lurks in the dark and little seen cosmos of the human heart.
Bright and beautiful Rhoda Williams (Marling) has been accepted to MIT and the night of her high school graduation, parties like there’s no tomorrow. On this particular night, a startlingly blue heavenly body looms near the moon, inspiring even more romantic hopes and dreams. Rhoda spies it as she gets behind the wheel, high on drink and the future, and crashes into a car at an intersection, killing the family of music professor and composer John Burroughs (William Mapother) and plunging him into a coma. Four years later, Rhoda emerges from prison and the planet, now dubbed Earth 2, hovers closer, and soon Rhoda begins to draw herself into the orbit of John Burroughs, who is adrift without his family, stranded far from his career, music and the everyday necessities of life.
At first, she plans to apologize, to set the record and her mind at ease, possibly, to take responsibility for altering the course of his (and her own) life, but she freezes when facing the obvious shell of a man at his front door. And instead, she offers to clean his home (posing as an employee with a home cleaning service) as a free trial and then they settle into a routine; once a week she arrives and helps him to pick up the shattered pieces of his life without ever telling him the truth.
Scientists eventually make radio contact with Earth 2 and it appears that the planet is a reflection, likely even a picture perfect mirror image of our own. A private space agency holds an essay contest where the winners gain the opportunity to be the first people to travel to the new Earth. Rhoda applies; her essay recalls the first explorers of the Wild West, the outcasts and the felons, and she imagines that it would make sense for her to go off on this new expedition because she too is, like them, seeking redemption.
That she earns a spot is no surprise, but the film is not about the preparation or the journey to this other Earth. Another Earth is a satellite, a parallel version of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, based on the novel by Stansilaw Lem, which was remade by Steven Soderbergh in 2002. The mysterious titular planet at the center of those films created replicas of people from the minds of the astronauts that tormented their psyches. Were the projections real beings and if so, what were they trying to teach us about ourselves?
Another Earth is closer in spirit to Tarkovsky’s original film in some aspects than the Soderbergh take. Earths 1 and 2 are similar, but maybe life on each changed that night each became aware of the other and if so, maybe Rhoda and John, on Earth 2 are living a different reality, the path intended for them. This is what science fiction is truly supposed to do, offer up hints and dreams of the future; alternatives, not the same old tricks. Cahill and Marling along with Mapother (cousin of Thomas Mapother Cruise who dazzles here as a man put back together with several pieces missing) push the limits further by opening up inner, rather than outer, space.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi