The end of July is a key counter-programming zone, or at least it appears that way given several major Sundance titles are either debuting or expanding into other markets this weekend. Miranda July’s The Future and Jon Michael McDonagh’s The Guard both opened in New York today.
Another Earth, the collaboration of Mike Cahill and Brit Marling, was certainly a buzz title, where it was awarded the Alfred P. Sloane prize and acquired by Fox Searchlight. The two exciting talents construct a fascinating science fiction-inflected fantasia backdrop that elevates and complicates an otherwise familiar story of redemption, hope and sacrifice.
Cahill directed, photographed and edited the movie, his debut feature. He also developed the scenario and wrote the script with Marling, a beautiful and expressive actress who anchors the work emotionally. She captures the perfect note between vulnerability and sorrow in her star making turn of an uncommonly bright young woman emotionally destroyed by her complicity in a tragedy.
Paradoxically, the very quality that separates it from the pack also prevents it from being a more fully realized work. The fantastical origins of the story create an in-between void the movie never quite satisfactorily resolves. In leaping between a work of forgiveness and the poetically imaginary, Another Earth is a film of parts.
It’s also hurt by the fact that since Sundance, Lars von Trier’s extraordinary Melancholia detonated Cannes and the two films’ formal and topical similarities put it on very unequal ground. At its best Another Earth is haunting and atmospheric in the manner it gathers and takes hold in the imagination. Those sharper, intuitive qualities help makes up for some of the underdeveloped aspects of the storytelling.
The story pivots on doubles, or doppelgangers. Rhoda Williams (Starling), a vivacious and academically gifted high school senior preparing to study astrophysics at MIT, is driving in her Connecticut town following a party. Her opposite is John Burroughs (William Mapother), a renowned composer and professor of music at Yale University.
Transfixed by a radio report that confirms the existence of a new planet in the solar system four times the size of the Moon, Rhoda loses control of her car, crosses into the lane and smashes into the vehicle driven by Burroughs. His wife and son are killed, and he is seriously injured. Rhoda survives the crash largely injury free.
The powerful and shocking moment immediately seizes on Cahill’s visual skill. Preceded by a high angle shot looking down on Burroughs, the camera slowly and sinuously plunges until the horrifying moment of impact. After serving a four-year jail sentence, Rhoda is released and repatriated to her family.
This accomplished and skilled young woman is a shadow of her former self. Sullen and largely uncommunicative, she is crippled by guilt and self-doubt. Cut off from her former group of friends, many of them now successful college graduates, Rhoda sinks into a different kind of oblivion and anonymity. She takes a menial job cleaning at the high school where she once starred.
Learning that Burroughs has emerged from his coma, Rhoda contrives a meeting to apologize for her actions. Confronting him at his house, Rhoda loses her nerve and presents herself as a worker at a local cleaning company offering free trial demonstrations. Not knowing her actual identity (she was a minor at the time of the accident), Burroughs agrees to her offer of help. (The two lead actors pictured above, at left.)
Against her intentions, Rhoda remains unable to reveal her actual identity. Not unexpectedly, the two dance and circle around each other warily. Rhoda is friendly though distant. John is obviously drawn to her solitude and mysteriousness.
If the plot is dominated by her very recognizable need for closure and absolution, the scientific implications of the early revelation hang over the emotional terrain in a strange and peculiar manner. The planet discovered by scientists is ostensibly a “duplicate,” or second Earth, called simply Earth 2, with early evidence confirming the necessary atmospheric conditions to sustain human existence.
In a stunning moment, glimpsed by Rhoda while watching television, government scientists trying to make contact with the other planet discover the mysterious new planet mirrors the precise activity of their own. The meanings and significance remain to sort out, but the consequences of time and space suggest the it houses an exact double.
Despite the film’s low budget, Cahill demonstrates a breathtaking eye that draws on old fashioned effects, like an awesome shot of a surreal cloud formation where the opposite planet is observable. The movie has some spare though involving and beautiful imagery rendered through a deft combination of matte, visual, computer and animation effects.
The narrative suspense is accelerated by the interconnected movements of whether Rhoda is going to finally reveal her part in John’s tragedy and what that means to their evolving and increasingly tender emotional interaction. Consistent with the rest of the film, Rhoda’s redemption also takes two forms, whether she is going to confess to John and whether her participation in a national essay contest will enable her to take part in an inaugural interplanetary travel between the two spheres.
The two actors are quietly sensational, his combination of calm and torment sharply conveyed against her need for forgiveness. Cahill and Marling are both natural writers. Perhaps because she played so central a role in the script’s development, Marling emerges as a more complex and fully rounded character. Her monologue about a cosmonaut is particularly impressive.
Visually, consistent with the sorrowful undercurrents, the movie is drained of primary colors. Cahill works almost exclusively in shades of white, black and metallic grays. It is really a more a mediation on what lies beyond our grasp. The final passages are so quickly patched together, they are a bit confusing, and the movie ends very opaquely, allowing for a number of different interpretations.
What remains unquestioned is the talent and drive of the two principals, Mike Cahill and Brit Marling. Another Earth is an imperfect though vibrant illustration of their gifts.