Thursday, January 12, 2012

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Another Earth (2011)

"Within our lifetimes we've marveled as biologists have managed to look at ever smaller and smaller things. And astronomers have looked further and further into the dark night sky, back in time, and out in space. But maybe the most mysterious of all is neither the small nor the large: it's us, up close. Could we even recognize ourselves, and if we did, would we know ourselves?"

- Another Earth (2011)

The year 2011 was the season for cinematic astrology. 

By that, I mean audiences last year unexpectedly received a troika of challenging science-fiction films involving the relationship between cosmic phenomena and events in the human world. 

Malick's impressive The Tree of Life concerned the juxtaposition between the bigness of all Creation, and the apparent smallness of one boy's mid-20th century turbulent journey to adulthood. 

Lars von Trier's magnificent and jagged Melancholia saw the psychological condition of depression literalized as a world-destroying, invader planet. 

And Mike Cahill's celebrated low budget feature debut, Another Earth suggests that even if we fail here on Earth, we may have doppelgangers living a better, more fruitful life on a duplicate sphere hanging in the night sky.  If only we could meet them...

One must wonder: what's in the water that all three of these projects should arrive in cinemas in the same twelve month span

I can only play amateur psychologist, but I wonder if the similarity in premises among the three films is due, simply, to our fatigue with the ongoing national dialogue and our sense of victimization from invisible but "malefic forces" (to quote The Texas Chain Saw Massacre...) we can't seem to understand, let alone control.   The Occupy Movement has cogently pointed out that the remote and unseen (the powerful 1 percent) -- like the gravity pull of some unseen planet -- can have deleterious effects on the rest of us (the 99'ers).

Indeed, it's as if we're all trapped under the eclipsing shadow of a malevolent heavenly body, never quite certain we'll see the daylight again  The question underlining these films (especially Melancholia and Another Earth) is thus mainly one of exasperation. 

What's it going to take us to lift us out of our collective funk?  A new planet in Earth's sphere of influence?

And given our recent spate of bad luck, it's probably going to collide with us, anyhow...

Although it lacks the visual lyricism of The Tree of Life and the in-your-face, paranoid genius of Melancholia, Another Earth remains an intriguing and affecting meditation on the philosophical notion that life so often seems to come down to one moment, and -- barring the surprise arrival of a rogue planet in orbit -- we don't get second chances.  We can only choose one path.

"...and now you begin to wonder, what else is different?"

Another Earth is the story of young Rhoda -- an entrancing Brit Marling -- a promising M.I.T. student who, on the night of the discovery of a duplicate Earth becomes involved in a terrible car accident. 

While racing down a seemingly empty street and furtively gazing the night sky for signs of the new world, she crashes her speeding car into a parked vehicle.  In that vehicle is a Yale music professor, John Burroughs (William Maypother) and his family.   John's wife and son die instantly on impact.  John's son, in fact, is thrown from the car entirely, and we see his little body shattered on a nearby side-walk.

Rhoda goes to jail for her crime, and is released four years later.  Although she has served her time for society's purposes, Rhoda continues to serve time in terms of her own conscience.  She simply can't let go of the lives she has destroyed. 

Among those, of course, is her own. 

All the potential, all the possibilities of her life, have evaporated.  Instead of pursuing her once-promising education and career, Rhoda opts instead for a kind of continuing purgatory; opting to become a janitor at a local high school.

One day, Rhoda learns that a company called "United Space Ventures" is promoting an essay contest for a "free ride" on a spaceship bound for the mysterious new neighbor, Earth Two.  Rhoda writes an essay about her situation for the competition, noting that, historically speaking, explorers have not necessarily been bold heroes, but rather convicts, felons and people otherwise "living on the edge."  Thus she is a perfect candidate.  Why does she want to go?  To escape life on an Earth where she is a criminal; to run away from herself and her deeds.

Then, one day, feeling a surfeit of shame and guilt, Rhoda inexplicably visits the home of John Burroughs.  She finds him living alone in a kind of perpetual drunken state, still grieving his dead family.  Pretending to be employed with a maid service, Rhoda begins to clean up his house for him.  Over the weeks, Rhoda and john develop a friendship and a romance, but she doesn't tell him who she really is.   And he doesn't know, either, because she was a minor when the accident occurred and he never looked at the court documents.

While their relationship develops, news about Earth Two arrives in dribs and drabs.  The planet is not just Earth-like, but an exact duplicate of our world...a mirror image.

And if that's the case, there may another Rhoda out there.  And another John Burroughs.  And there's the possibility, too, that events have unfolded differently...

"Is that me better than this me?"

A great line from the original and remade Solaris suggests that humans don't go to outer space looking for aliens...but for mirrors.

Another Earth pivots on this notion, depicting the tale of a mirror planet that offers the characters opportunity for...well...reflection. 

If the "alternate" Rhoda of Earth Two didn't negligently kill John's family and didn't go to jail, what did she become?  What could she become? 

And even if she became something different, was her destiny and "core" personality the same on both Earths?  The film's final scene suggests that no matter what path she eventually takes, Rhoda will find a way to win the contest to visit the "other" world.  She will be involved either as an M.I.T. graduate, or as a self-loathing janitor doing penance for her crimes.  The last image of the film, though determinedly ambiguous, makes this idea, at the very least, implicit.

Another highly-underrated film in science fiction film history, Gerry Anderson's Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969) also dealt with the concept of a mirror Earth. Though that film more overtly concerned international espionage and space travel, it shares with Another Earth a fascination with the idea that "there's another you out there."

In other words, what would you tell yourself, if you met yourself?  Don't stop at that stop-light? 

Or, as Rhoda cynically notes "better luck next time?"  

Would we have legitimate wisdom to impart to our alternate selves?  Would -- and should we --even categorize a duplicate self as...self?  Or, given the "broken mirror" hypothesis which states that the two planets severed their synchronicity at mutual discovery, are the doppelgangers authentically two separate, distinct individuals?

For much of its running time, Another Earth is mostly a character study, gazing at a woman who has made a terrible mistake and would like to undo it...but can't.  Your patience for the film will likely depend largely on your acceptance of Rhoda's plight, and understanding that human beings are intrinsically irrational creatures.  There's simply no rational way to explain some of Rhoda's behavior towards John as portrayed in the film.  In fact, at times it feels downright cruel, since she is hiding crucial information from him. 

But that too is part of the movie's unique alchemy:  would even a duplicate "you" always understand why you do things a certain way, or act in a certain fashion?  Probably not.

Director Mike Cahill doesn't yet boast the technical chops of a Malick or a von Trier, but hell, how would you like to be launched into that select company your first time out?  What I mean is that Another Earth, though intriguing and well-done, lacks much of the visual distinction you'll find on display in The Tree of Life or Melancholia.  It's shot cheaply, and Cahill doesn't meaningfully use form to reflect content.  There's a lot of hand-held back and forth in the composition, but nothing that really augments the screenplay's meaning or internal heart.

Yet in the final analysis what makes Another Earth shine nearly as brightly as The Tree of Life or Melancholia is Marling's excavation of the Rhoda character.  I wrote above that Marling's performance is entrancing, and it truly is.  You'll quickly fall in love with Marling's face, and with the tragic character she assiduously and painstakingly crafts.  Given the personal nature of the story and the thematic through-line of "what would you say to yourself if you could?," the strong, intimate portrayal of Rhoda really carries the film.

Netfix describes Another Earth as a "sci-fi romance," and that's a laughably bad description of the film's content and aura.  Like Melancholia or The Tree of Life, this enterprise is about cinematic astrology, about how a cosmic body touches the human soul, and forever changes it. 

Take it on those terms, and in the context of this strange 2011 movie trend, and you won't be disappointed. 


  1. Michelle11:35 AM

    I saw 'Another Earth' and I liked it. Amazing scene with a guy playing a saw - how many
    movies have that?! Do you know if that scene is on Youtube or anywhere else on line? I am trying to find it but all I found was an MP3 of the music on the composer's website

  2. I've only briefly skimmed your review, John, as I have this coming up real soon. Given the good things I've heard about it, I'm trying to read only so much about this before I screen it. Thanks.

  3. I was hoping you were going to write this review John and join it with Melancholia. (I haven't seen Tree yet) I found both AE and Melancholia so....Space 1999. I kept expecting Lee Russell to step out of the shadows in both films, or a spaceship with black and white checks on it to fly overhead. I also made the same conclusions in pairing these films with the OWS movement. Even though there is some big Sci Fi "thing" happening...directly overhead the main focus is the peoples story. One an image of a very ill and mishandled woman and the other, a woman trying to make her world right again. Mateo would class these as Magic Realism. I was thinking Johnny Byrne is still with us. Thanks for the good work, you know I was thinking about you, Mateo, Johnny and Lee Russell through most of these films!

    Phil Merkel

  4. Hi everyone,

    Michelle: I also liked Another Earth very much, and was impressed by that scene with the "saw" instrument. A very beautiful and moving scene. I have no idea, however, if it is available for viewing online.

    Le0pard13: I totally understand, my friend. See the movie first, then return to the review! You definitely have a treat in store!

    Phil: Hello, my old friend! I love that you tie this movie trend of "astrology" to Space:1999. You're absolutely right. The ideas that Johnny Byrne worked with over a quarter century ago have finally moved into the global consciousness, which suggests the series was quite ahead of its time, after all. Note too, that Smallville's finale ended with imagery right out of Space:1999, and particularly the episode "Collision Course," which saw two planets touch in a similar fashion to "Finale."

    "Magical Realism" is good terminology for these films, also psychological astrology, I guess, because there's a definite connection between our emotions and cosmic bodies!

    Great comments, all!