Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
October 2011

Another Earth

Second home

Mike Cahill's 'Another Earth' uses intriguing premise to explore loss, redemption and rebirth

Another Earth
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Mike Cahill
Screenplay: Mike Cahill and Brit Marling
Starring: Brit Marling, William Mapother, Jordan Baker, Flint Beverage, Robin Taylor and Kumar Pallana
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 32 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

Micro-budget science-fiction can be both maddening (if it clearly needs the resources it lacks) or liberating (in the way its inherent limitations open up new possibilities). One of the best films of the last decade or so is Shane Carruth's Primer, a time-travel drama made for a reported budget of about $7,000. On the other hand, the film I cite - among friends - as the worst I've ever seen was another low-budget sci-fi flick I saw at Sundance a few years back. (I'm withholding its name only because it would seem cruel; the movie never got distribution and hasn't really been heard from, so we can just leave it be.)

Like much of the best science-fiction on the indie circuit, Mike Cahill's Another Earth doesn't lean heavily on special effects nor elaborate production design, but character - with a high concept as its backdrop.

That concept is this: A planet that looks distinctly like our own has suddenly appeared on the horizon - a perplexing and fascinating phenomenon that catches the attention of high-school senior Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the screenplay), and sets in motion a tragic series of events. A brilliant student who has just been accepted to MIT, Rhoda drives home under the influence one night - the same night, as it happens, that what comes to be known as "Earth 2" first appears.

Distracted, she ends up slamming into another car, killing the wife and child of a prominent local musician and music professor. The story picks up just as Rhoda has been released from jail, her once-promising future plans thwarted (or at least put on hold), her idealism shattered, her guilt crippling. Her family is supportive but distant, uncertain. Rhoda takes a janitorial position at a local high school and wades through her day-to-day in perpetual gloom.

Having been a minor at the time of the crash, Rhoda had her identity concealed - meaning the grieving father/husband, John (William Mapother), doesn't recognize her when she shows up at his door under the pretense of offering a free one-day trial for a maid service.

Perpetually drunk and out of sorts, John lets her in. She comes back every week and cleans, each time trying to work up the courage to tell him who she really is and what she did, each time failing. They form a friendship, then an attraction. You see where this is going. No, it doesn't completely work, but the performances by Marling and Mapother sell it anyway.

The looming presence of this second planet - which gets closer and more visible by the day - provides the anchor for the film's thematic underpinnings. There's no real hard science here - no explanation of what (if anything) this second planet is doing to the tides, for example - nor need there be. This is a film concerned not with gravitational forces, but with those of redemption and rebirth. We discover that not only does Earth 2 resemble our planet, but is in fact identical in virtually every way. Another Rhoda is up there. Another John. Another everyone.

Scientists speculate that the appearance of the second Earth caused a fracture in the timelines of the two planets - that things have split into their own separate fates since the planets became aware of one another's existence. Does that mean John's wife and son are still alive out there? Did Rhoda 2 make it to MIT after all?

A businessman creates an essay contest, offering to the winners a chance to go to Earth 2, all expenses paid - truly the opportunity of a lifetime. (Apparently in this reality, the private-sector space race has indeed been won.) Rhoda, starving for a new beginning - for a reality that she can cope with - enters the contest, despite the objections of her family. Not to mention John, who seems dead set against the idea for reasons far beyond his own affections for Rhoda.

The film being what it is, Another Earth doesn't need too much F/X savvy - but what it could have used is a bit more time to flesh out its ideas. Its effectiveness seems to vary from scene to scene. (And, to be fair, a slightly bigger budget could have helped some of the smaller details. The websites we see Rhoda browsing look like they were designed by a novice who just got his first Geocities account. But that's a small complaint.) Still, Cahill makes the most of his limitations. The final result is thoughtful and interesting, and carried beyond its narrative hiccups by Marling's star-worthy performance.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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