The low-budget aesthetic lends itself best to local, intimate settings. Bedrooms, backseats of cars, unfinished basements are the places where people, most often young people, get to know each other and themselves. Science fiction and the ultra-low budget indie are seldom paired together, but in Another Earth the cosmic and the private are deeply intertwined.
In Mike Cahill’s debut feature film, the appearance of (quite literally) another Earth prompts a sequence of events that are as tragic as they are unfathomable. The film, which premiered at Sundance in January where it won an award and was picked up by Fox Searchlight Pictures (which for a film of this size is essentially like winning the lottery), subverts the narrative conventions of what we’ve come to expect from an independent film and takes aesthetic liberties with the science fiction genre.
One night in Connecticut, seventeen-year-old Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling) leaves a party a little too tipsy and gets into her car. She’s happy, elated, due to her recent acceptance into the astrophysics program at MIT. While she’s driving home, a news alert on the radio informs her that a planet, what is perceived to be a replica of Earth, has just been discovered. The person says that this planet is visible and is in the sky at that very moment. This information prompts Williams to stick her head out of the driver side window while she is driving a car very fast. While staring up at this new world, Rhoda destroys her own, and four others; she drives her car into a station wagon sitting at a red light, one holding a child, a pregnant woman and John Burroughs (William Mapother), a brilliant composer and music professor at Yale. The accident kills the mother, her child and unborn baby, leaving Burroughs in a coma in the hospital. Williams goes to prison, her identity kept a secret because she is still a minor.
Science fiction is based upon the extreme, the supernatural, the ability to create mind-bending situations, ones only matched by their visual execution. Cahill’s superimposing of lo-fi and sci-fi undermines the plot because it draws the viewer in with its visual minimalism but then asks us to suspend total disbelief; the issue is that we are attune to a different visual approach in similar contexts and so are unsure how to situate ourselves. At times, the genre bending is murky, not innovative.
After a title card informs us of several years passing, Williams is let back out into the world, one that now has an Earth the size of many moons sitting in the sky. It is an arresting image, one not only pregnant with Twilight Zone appeal but with true artistic weight. The idea of a mirror planet, a place that reflects each thing, each person, each thought, is central to the narrative, is the basis of Williams’ agony, and of her hope. Additionally, the image itself is more than striking; there are few filmic images of the past few years that say so much, while doing so little. Brit Marling looking into the middle distance, with a giant globe behind her, might have sold the film on its own.
Once Williams is out of prison, she abandons her future in science and instead opts to become as invisible as possible taking the job as janitor at her old high school. Her only friend is a fellow custodian, Purdeep (Kumar Pallana), who mumbles platitudes to her about acceptance while they scrub floors. While this is going on, though, she cannot resist the urge to reach out to Burroughs, having long since been out of the coma. One day she sees him at the scene of the accident, but frozen in shame, she cannot speak to him. So, unable to stand the guilt, she decides to go see him to apologize face to face. But, in the last second, she loses her nerve and lies, saying that she is with a cleaning company and offers a free trial. Burroughs, who is almost as run down as his decrepit house in tattered house robe and stinking of bourbon, halfheartedly agrees.
What follows is a romantic game of cat and mouse. Rhoda tries to fill the void in his life in any way she can, while John slowly begins to open up to her, to share his grief with someone else for the first time. After a few cleaning sessions, with the sexual tension growing with each visit, each meal together, John informs her that he does not know who is responsible for this tragedy, as the identity of the minor had to be kept confidential. She of course knew this, but pushes on, her sole reason for living to better John’s life, one moment at a time.
When not at his side, Williams dreams of going to the other Earth, to see if her horrendous act has been duplicated there. (The internal logic of this film is a bit unclear, i.e. if it is a mirror image and people are exactly the same, then why wouldn’t the exact same things happen on both planets?) Not being able to afford the million-dollar trip, she applies for a free ticket in a sweepstakes, calling herself an “outsider,” someone living on the “margins” as would a convict from hundreds of years before—her pitch is a comparison between space travel and the discovery of America. This time is spent alone, in an attic flooded in sunlight; Williams does little other then feel pain and watch the dust particles fly around.
As Another Earth moves into its final act, it becomes clear that resolution and peace are relative, and for these characters, never totally possible. To Cahill’s credit, he has crafted a melodrama of interstellar proportions; from the first scene, the stakes could not be higher. It is the level of drama and its interaction with the film’s lo-fi look that at times confuses the tone. With images like these, conversations about sex and the many disappointments derived from it are more fitting than those of space travel and the difficulties that arise from meeting your mirror self. The film’s premise is larger than life, and thus can’t help at times overshadowing the film itself.