Another Earth

Another Earth featured image

By Marc Glassman
July 29, 2011

Mike Cahill, director and co-writer w/Brit Marling
Starring: Brit Marling (Rhoda Williams), William Mapother (John Burroughs)

Mike Cahill and Brit Marling are living the dream. They worked for years to make a low budget first feature film–scraping together the money, arranging for a shoot in Cahill’s hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, calling in favours from friends and family. Marling took the starring role, Cahill directed it and both are credited for the script.

Lightning struck. Sundance premiered their unique science-fiction philosophical drama Another Earth. It got a lot of buzz in Park City and went on to win the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for use of science or technology in a feature. The film generated a bidding war–rare these days–and Fox Searchlight won, picking up Another Earth for between $1.5 and $2 million dollars. Cahill’s and Marling’s little film is being released across Canada and the U.S. this summer and is, once again, getting a lot of attention.

So, you’re thinking, does it deserve the hype?

It’s a pleasure to give this Indie a Roger Ebert-styled thumbs up. The concept is more than a bit strange but the story and the two main characters are compelling. Marling, a thin attractive blonde, plays Rhoda, a young woman who has done something unforgivable. While driving her car at the age of 18, she became distracted and rammed her vehicle into a sedan, instantly killing a mother and child and causing the father to lapse into a life-threatening coma. She spent four years in prison and essentially lost the narrative in her life.

Rhoda had been accepted into MIT. Instead, she’s “graduated” from prison. Now all she wants to do is work as a janitor in the local school. Cahill and Marling handle scenes of Rhoda’s solitude very well; you see how withdrawn she’s become, even to her mother and father, who have welcomed her back home.

Eventually, Rhoda decides to do something. John Burroughs, the man she nearly killed, has emerged from his coma and is living fairly close to her. She goes to him to make amends but is so thrown off by his unruly appearance and abrupt manner that she makes up a story. Rhoda pretends that she’s a housecleaner, part of a service called “Maid in Heaven” (an overly dramatic title), and she offers to clean John’s place as a “free, introductory offer.”

You can see where this is going, of course. Girl comes to clean up after a sad sack of a man and, slowly but surely, he begins to get his life back together. The audience watches, compelled, as the melodramatic plot unfolds. When will she tell him the truth?

Another Earth could have become an awfully clichéd film if it weren’t for its bizarre premise. Rhoda has gone to jail because everyone assumes that she was drunk but she wasn’t–she’d seen another planet and had taken her eyes off the road.

Indeed, this new planet has suddenly arrived near to Earth, orbiting so close by that its reflected light is as bright as the Moon. Spoken contact is quickly established and it turns out that this “other earth” mirrors ours to the extent that the same people are alive on both planets. It’s decided to build a rocket ship to take people from the Earth to meet the new neighbours.

As a populist gesture, an essay contest is created, with the best essayist winning the prize of being able to go to the “other Earth.” Rhoda wins, attracting the kind of attention that she’s been desperately trying to avoid. And she’s still feeling guilty for the deaths of John’s wife and child. What should she do with the ticket to the stars?

The power in Another Earth arises out of the question of the second planet. Clearly, the “other” Earth is a philosophical construct. It could be our wish fulfillment. On the other Earth, perhaps things have worked out better for John and Rhoda. Maybe the accident hasn’t taken place. What would their lives be like if that fatal moment hadn’t occurred?

Another Earth is paced and shot in a composed, old fashioned way. True, there are some bravura moments and lots of odd, processed shots of the other planet. But, in essence, the film gives Rhoda and John plenty of opportunities to reveal their inner lives to the camera. There is a nice gravitas to the film–it feels as if Cahill and Marling really care about the fate of their characters–and the idea of alternate realities.

Sincere instead of sensational, moving instead of mawkish, Another Earth is a film that has some original moments. With two fine leads in Marling and William Mapother, the film isn’t quirky; it earns its eccentric surface and invites the viewer into a philosophical trip that is worth pursuing. There is no doubt about one thing: the future is bright for Cahill and Marling.

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