A Cosmic Existential Crisis

Another Earth (2011) has an interesting concept. This, of course, sounds like kind of tepid praise that is usually followed with a loaded “but”¦“ I have no such follow-up concerns.

The current film landscape is filled with unoriginality. In August alone, Hollywood has or will release six remakes or sequels (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Final Destination 5, Conan the Barbarian, Fright Night, Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World, and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark). In my mind, having an interesting concept is very high praise.

Co-writers Brit Marling (who also stars) and Mike Cahill (who also directs) manage to take what could easily be a tired story of overcoming a tragic event and the guilt associated with it and manage to create a lyrical, poetic exploration of an otherworldly existential crisis.

Rhoda Williams (Marling) leaves jail four years after killing a woman and her young son – and leaving the father with physical and emotional wounds – in a drunk driving accident. Her release also marks the four-year anniversary of the arrival of a new planet, visible in the night sky; in fact, it was this small speck among the stars which distracted the 17-year-old, MIT-bound Rhoda enough to veer into the oncoming lane of traffic that fateful night.

Upon her release, everything has changed, and yet nothing has. The small blue speck in the sky has become a looming mirror image of our own earth, now colloquially known as Earth 2. But upon her return home, Rhoda finds her childhood bedroom untouched, a time capsule of a moment she would rather not remember.

Rhoda sets out to rebuild her life in the shadow of a cacophony of speculations and assumptions regarding the inhabitants of the mirror Earth. Are we all up there, just as we are here? Has that me made the same mistakes I have? In the process, she makes an unlikely – and dishonest – connection with John Burroughs (a wonderful William Mapother), the man whose life she so inexorably changed four years prior.

Cahill makes unbelievably good use of the film’s unimaginably small budget of $150,000, creating an unwary sense of intimacy with location shooting, a small cast, and grainy digital cinematography. And yet, Another Earth never loses its sense of scope, allowing for the wide, cosmic questions it raises to create a sense grandeur that the budget cannot. The film’s minimal but necessary use of special effects is subtle and naturalistic (or, rather, as naturalistic as seeing a giant Earth floating in the sky could possibly be).

Another Earth is not perfect. Some of the dialogue is stilted and contrived, and there is a puzzling narrative aside with one of Rhoda’s coworkers, Purdeep, who exists as an awkward and wholly unnecessary “Wise Native”-type trope character. I felt Marling and Cahill could have brought more depth to many of the characters, as well as their relationships with each other. I was left wanting to know more about Rhoda’s parents (How was their life impacted by her incarceration? Are they struggling to relate to her now that she has been released?), and her friends (She is shown surrounded by friends in the film’s brief prologue; surely some of them must have stayed in touch?). And damn if I’m not tired of films attempting to make gorgeous women magically homely with messy hair and oversized clothes.

But overall, Another Earth is an accomplished film. It speaks for itself that a film written by two young newcomers and made with a microscopic budget is a far better achievement than the majority of its company at multiplexes. It gives me hope, which is hard to find when I’m groping around in 3D glasses.

Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared on filmschooled’s tumblr.

One thought on “A Cosmic Existential Crisis”

  1. I saw an interview with Brit Marling on “CBS Sunday Morning”. She and her film intrigue me, enough for me to actually venture into a theatre to see it–if it comes my way. And yes to William Mapother, an under appreciated actor. He’s the real actor in his family.

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