Another Earth (2011, Mike Cahill)
To catch a subtle, intelligent movie that tells a story this utterly original and elegant is a rare treat, and gives us cause to be newly reminded of the imagination that exists in our country’s independent film sector. In its first seconds, Mike Cahill’s Another Earth, written by the director with lead actress Brit Marling (a revelation on both counts), establishes its two fixations, which will gradually converge — the wonder and hugeness of the universe, and the range of endless possibilities and sickeningly fast, irrevocable changes therein. The trauma comes moments into the narrative, when Marling’s 17 year-old overexcited and brilliant astronomy student Rhoda makes a reckless error: drunkenly gazing out the window of her car while drunk, she crashes head-on into a stopped car and kills two people, sending their husband and father into a coma. The subject of her longing gaze is a new planet, just discovered, that’s said to be a twin of our own. Earth 2, they’re calling it. Rhoda’s world seems limitless, and then she destroys it. When she comes out of prison four years later, all she wants is to work with her hands mindlessly, doing her best to escape into herself. We are made to feel for her, for she offers no paean to her own victimhood and sincerely does her best to move onward.
What stops her is the discovery of the accident’s lone survivor mourning at the site on its anniversary. To outline what happens afterward, even if you’ve seen the film, seems like a criminal oversimplification. Suffice it to say that the story never takes the easy way out and is among the most relentlessly provocative American films, somewhat evoking the concurrent A Separation from Iran in the audience identification it achieves with what are finally diametrically opposed characters — the thesis being, of course, that there are no good or bad “guys,” only good and bad actions, wise acts and mistakes, and here a mistake has wrecked every life it touched. This is managed despite the film being almost entirely subjective on the part of Marling’s character, even matching its muted color palette to her psychiatric state, which in keeping with the uncompromising nature of the film is not morbidly depressed or guilty, though mildly both, but just a picture of a human being making the best of a life that’s been permanently altered by a fleeting moment of stupidity on a single night, unforgivable as it may be. In both performances and direction, the complex emotions thus conjured are approximated deftly, in depth and without overreach.
Though William Mapother is brilliant as the crushed, soul-destroyed victim of the crash, who finds solace, hope, and finally redemption as a result of a stranger’s entrance into his life through panicked dishonesty, Marling’s performance certainly drives the picture and seems so achingly felt it’s almost unfair to the other actors. There’s a moment when she has a monologue that first displays to Mapother’s John her unexpected sophistication — upending and exposing his own preconceptions, since he sees her as “just” a cleaning lady — and it’s a hypnotic moment of acting prowess that has us all riveted, like you could hear a pin drop. Later, John’s showcase is to play the musical saw in an empty auditorium for Rhoda… and even then, it’s the low-key honesty of her longing reaction that makes the scene special. We forgive her for the bad things she causes and even the potential life wreckage she inflicts; even when she does the wrong thing, we understand and we’re with her because we can position ourselves as the creator of these disasters. She is a human being to us, immaculately detailed and full-bodied.
What we also are gifted with in Another Earth is an extraordinary science fiction film with a genuinely thoughtful and emotionally rich concept. Earth 2 turns out to embody a planet full of parallel versions of ourselves that deviated at some point, something discovered in a moving and eerily realistic newscast viewed by the characters, the composition of “SPACE STRAWBERRIES” on a dry-erase board one of many instantly unforgettable moments that I’ve had a hard time shaking. More pertinently, like Melancholia (and contrary to popular conversation, this is one of the few resemblances), this film — made for next to nothing — casts its world-ranging, enormous tale as a personal story, almost a chamber piece. The obvious larger implications that drive the climax are enough to sober you immediately — the impossibility in our world of changing what has already happened, and the often nearly intolerable scale of our yearning to do so. When I realized where the film was going, I actually gasped and felt ecstatic, but also in the longer term, devastated, because this is knowingly a fantasy of what a person in Rhoda’s position might want more than anything, even if she didn’t love John, and can never have: the chance to take back what she’s done. As the heart-filling reality of her act of selflessness takes hold, we know she will never come out from under her need to make amends for what cannot be amended. It’s beautiful because she’s human, awful because no resolution is really possible.
I’ve heard varying interpretations of the ending, which features a worldess encounter with the “other” Rhoda from Earth 2 — my own immediate feeling was that it suggested that the accident had never happened there, that this well put-together version of herself was the woman she once had the potential to become. Others have implied it merely proves that you can never go back, the flipbook can’t turn backward, even in this hopeful fantasy; or perhaps more complications yet are in play. The film is disinterested in offering us time to consider all this before it cuts to black, because it’s aware we’ll spend hours, days, weeks turning it over and over in our minds, contemplating it, discussing it and debating it again and again. That’s how powerful, incendiary, sincerely fascinating and touching a piece of art it is.