By now you may already know this mysterious film called Another Earth, that was a Sundance darling and is now being touted as the best indie drama released this year. For all I know, it very well is. But essentially the story of Another Earth is simply that of Rhoda (Brit Marling), an MIT-bound young woman who after a night of celebration makes a bad decision that ends up changing (ruining?) her life and the lives of the Burroughs family forever (forever?).
And of course, there’s that second earth. In fact, the moment Rhoda sticks her head out of the car window to search for this amazing sight is when the course of her foreseeable future was altered. Over the years, the second earth grows bigger in the sky, until it ultimately just becomes a part of everyone’s reality. No longer on the road to college, Rhoda becomes a janitor at the local high school, everyday seeing the second earth. People don’t really talk about it, scientists continue to study its strange presence, but there doesn’t appear to be any threat, and life goes on as usual.
It isn’t until Rhoda visits the composer-turned-recluse John Burroughs (William Mapother) that the second earth begins to spark questions within Rhoda that force her to contemplate whether second chances are possible. Rhoda intends to make amends for her mistakes by seeing Burroughs, but instead she lies about belonging to a maid service, and ends up cleaning his house all the while getting closer to a man who doesn’t know who she is, and could never forgive her for what she did to his family. In the end, she makes the only choice she knows will allow Burroughs to find closure, and possibly a new life that begins, ironically, with the one he lost.
Sci-fi films generally have the difficult task of balancing often complicated metaphysical plot lines with characters that spout more than just mind numbing exposition. Few films succeed in the act, and more times than not audiences are dazzled by images rather than story or character development. Another Earth represents the beginning of something that I hope becomes a trend in both indie and blockbuster sci-fi dramas: an unpretentious film that doesn’t get too mired down in being “smart.”*
This isn’t to say that Another Earth doesn’t possess intelligence, or that it doesn’t take its science fiction aspects seriously. In many ways, by not delving too deep into the reasons why there is suddenly a second earth, the film can explore subjects that are not present in most traditional science-fiction films that are often too involved with thwarting some dangerous threat to human existence. The second earth is merely a metaphor that represents all mankind’s yearning for second chances, the belief that maybe another me, in another place, got it right, and maybe I can too.
Another Earth spends a lot of time asking questions, providing intriguing theories and hints, while simultaneously backing off. Sometimes the theories seem to only be present in order to further the plot, or offer a reason behind a character’s actions. This is certainly the case at the end of the film when Rhoda, after hearing one scientist on TV discuss his theory on the presence of the second earth, gives up her shot at a new life to give Burroughs another shot at his. The ending of the film is an interesting twist that may raise even more questions, but for me, it actually answered the presence of the second earth, and the purpose of the film. Other viewer experiences may vary.
Another Earth suffers from a few problems, including what many have cited as sloppy camera work and low production values. It’s true that some of the hand- held camera work can be distracting, but at times it gives the film its necessary gritty atmosphere. I enjoyed Brit Marling as Rhoda, perhaps because it reminded me so much of Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in Winter’s Bone (two long blonde-haired beauties in crappy situations).
Also, what little science the film does present is often contradictory, vague, and leaves many questions unanswered. But isn’t that sometimes the case with science? Have sci-fi movies filled our heads with notions of tightly wrapped packages of information where everything has an answer, and everything can be explained for the sake of the plot? This is hardly ever the case, and I think this film recognizes that great scientific phenomena can occur everyday, but life also continues. Life adapts to science, it adapts to giant planets in the sky, it adapts to discoveries that may pose threats or offer freedom. We’re not all running around trying to find a rock to hide under. SPOILER ALERT: And when Rhoda sees herself from Earth 2, I believe she met a woman who found her second chance, and it didn’t come with a degree from MIT necessarily, but from the ability to adapt to the consequences of choices made, good and bad, and the strength to perservere.
*Inception is a film that has unfortunately suffered some backlash mainly because its intelligence overshadowed pretty much everything else the film had to offer. It’s no easy feat explaining the theory behind “inception,” or even the science behind dreaming itself in a way that an audience can digest quickly and still keep up with the action. And what’s more, such a film will separate sci-fi enthusiasts and the rest of us: “Oh, you didn’t understand the point of the spinning top at the end? I guess you just don’t get it.”