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
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.