Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Another Earth

The best science fiction is about more than aliens, monsters, explosions, and special effects. At its heart, the best of the genre offers intriguing ideas about where humanity might be heading and how it might apply to our daily lives. Another Earth (2011) presents some neat possibilities about how people might react to the discovery of a new, earth-like planet which seemingly has a duplicate everyone on it. However, the movie uses that scenario more a backdrop than as its focus,  concentrating more on the personal drama of its two central characters.

Another Earth is the story of guilt and regret. If there is another planet out there that is exactly like earth populated by doubles of ourselves, have they made the same life decisions as us? Maybe they chose a different path and ended up in a better position than us. Those are questions Rhoda (Brit Marling) has. The night Earth 2 is discovered, the same night she was accepted into MIT, she crashed her car into another vehicle, killing the wife and son of Yale Music Professor John Burroughs (William Mapother). Years later, having served her time in prison, she's working as a high school janitor, still haunted by her mistake. When a company offers passage to Earth 2 to the winner of an essay contest, Rhoda looks to the sky.

Many sci fi stories often begin with a simple premise: what if. What if aliens landed on earth?  What if scientists developed a portal to another dimension? That question is not unique to science fiction; it's something people ask themselves all the time. What if I had gone to this college instead of that school? What if I took that job overseas? What if I had told that special someone how I really felt long ago? What if I hadn't been drinking that night? Another Earth, at its most basic level, is about personal regret filtered through the science fiction.

Rhoda, we see, reaches out to John and tries to better his life. We sense her guilt and believe she wants to do the right thing, whatever that is, but she doesn't know. Their relationship evolves from cautiously professional (she arrives at his house and claims to be a maid with a cleaning service) to friendship and eventually romance. Still, her life is one of sorrow and remorse; her world has grown colder, darker, and less promising. As she notes in her essay, the explorers of the New World were often people living on the edge - convicts, orphans, outcasts, etc. - who saw sailing across the Atlantic, journeying into the unknown in the hope of something better.

Another Earth is more of an indy drama with a sci fi background. I would have liked more examination of Earth 2. The film teases intriguing possibilities about journeying into space and meeting your own personal double, but it doesn't explore those ideas much, spending more time on the relationship between Rhoda and John. In fact, it probably wouldn't have taken much of a rewrite to completely drop the entire Earth 2 aspect and just concentrate on the drama. Still, I was engaged for the entire picture, the performances by Marling and Mapother were good, and director Mike Cahill with his first feature (apart from a documentary) demonstrates he might be a filmmaker worth keeping an eye on.



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