In the new film Another Earth from newcomer Mike Cahill there is a newly discovered planet that appears to replicate Earth exactly and is gradually moving closer. That plot would be enough to drive a film, yet it is not what Another Earth is about. Like any good minimalist science fiction film Cahill uses a scientific anomaly as a metaphorical background that helps tell a rich character study. The second planet that is ever looming over our characters heads exists to raise questions, rather than guide the story in an obvious direction.
Despite its almost non-existent budget Another Earth is filled with decent special effects and more ideas than a typical science fiction effort. Cahill’s style feels like Tarkovsky meets mumblecore with minimalism put to great effect to tell a deeply moving story about regret and how mistakes shape us. The film is packed with metaphors that are like a rich-chocolate cake – delicious at first, but eventually too much to digest. One of the greatest achievements of Another Earth is its offering up of a fantastic new discovery: talented actress Brit Marling.
From the opening shots our protagonist Rhoda, played by Marling, feels detached from the world she inhabits. She is a promising young astro-physicist with dreams and a generally optimistic existence. She mentions in the opening scene that she doesn’t want to “bite from the apple of cynicism.” The announcement of the discovery of the other planet inspires her to gaze skyward while operating a motor vehicle, leading to the event that will set the film’s dramatic arc in motion. Rhoda spends four years in jail and returns to her parents home where she clears out her room but for the bare essentials, takes a job as a school janitor, and without words pledges to live in a state of self-loathing.
Overcome with guilt, Rhoda decides to approach John, the man whose life she ruined with the accident where she discovers his life has experienced a similar downward spiral. She offers her services as an unpaid housekeeper and decides that her penance is to make his life better. The two begin an unbalanced relationship that provides a rare opportunity for each of them to connect with another societal outcast. Together they form a relationship that purely exists in the moment with little talk of the future and, thanks to Rhoda’s withholding, little revisiting of the past.
The film is constantly narrated by physicists and philosophers who offer theories on what might be contained in the “other Earth.” Rhoda enters into a contest to be on the first flight to the mystifying planet and the idea becomes motivation for her own existence because of the questions it raises. Has the other Rhoda made the same mistakes she has? Is there another version of her that is not weighed down by guilt? These questions become more daunting for all the film’s characters as the other planet looms closer and closer to our own.
Acting as cinematographer, editor, producer, and co-writer on top of director, Cahill deserves credit for a lot of the thematic depth. Duality is represented throughout as the characters are shot indirectly through mirrors or dirty window screens. Cahill uses this oft-used cinematic technique to show us that we make many choices and the best way to live life is to keep moving forward rather than dwelling on what could have been.
One of the most interesting, if slightly underplayed, relationships in the film is that between Rhoda and her fellow school janitor Purdeep. Purdeep represents a potential future for Rhoda as he also has something in his past that causes him dire guilt to the point where he blinds himself with bleach, unable to face his own reflection. Purdeep, excellently played by Kumar Pallana (The Royal Tenenbaums), embodies the physical manifestation of guilt and the idea of another version of himself existing causes him anguish rather than hope. Through their relationship Rhoda gets to see the consequences of her recklessness and her potential if she does not choose to look forward.
As Rhoda, Marling is present in almost every frame of the film with subtle changes in perspective throughout. After the accident she speaks very little and chooses her words carefully. The Economics major-turned actress Marling tightens her lips and speaks slowly as if each word were laden with regret. She strongly employs an actor’s strongest tools, her eyes, to show her calculating every move. Marling manages to show a lot with very little words, which is difficult for even the most seasoned actresses to do.
With little film and lighting equipment to use some of the shots that Cahill pulled off are nothing short of remarkable. It’s exciting to see films with such big ideas and such little budgets not only getting produced, but also getting wide distribution thanks to companies like Fox Searchlight. We live in a Golden Age of independent cinema and Mike Cahill and Brit Marling’s Another Earth is a perfect example of the excellence that can be achieved with a small budget.
Bottom Line: Another Earth is thought-provoking and cleverly made and introduces the world to an excellent new acting talent.