Every morning that I wake up I follow a very specific procedure: shower, shave, get dressed, watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, eat breakfast, and brush my teeth. What is different each day is the narrative or conversation that I am constructing in my head about my life:
"Do I look good in this shirt? Am I prepared for the day ahead of me? Am I happy with whom I’ve become?"
It is this conversation that I have with myself on a daily basis that Another Earth brings into the light. Most films are content to internalize that discussion, in the form of voiceovers. Another Earth isn’t so content. Instead it asks the question, what would it actually be like to talk to yourself? It does so by instead externalizing that conversation in the form of “Earth 2.”
Another Earth starts with the reveal of a 10th planet (if you count Pluto) in our solar system. What starts out as a bright blue sparkle in the night sky quickly is revealed to be a planet identical to Earth in every way, even including our moon.
The night of the discovery of “Earth 2” we are introduced to Rhoda (Brit Marling), a carefree and brilliant MIT student, who has been drinking and decides to get behind the wheel of her car. Rhoda is distracted by her view of the new Earth in the night sky and plows headfirst into another car. Inside the car is John Burroughs (William Mapother), his pregnant wife, and son. John survives and ends up in a coma while his wife and son are instantly killed.
After this unforgettable and brilliantly shot scene, four years pass at which point Rhoda is released from prison. When she returns home she is withdrawn and suicidal, giving up on her passion for astronomy and instead taking a job as a janitor at a local school.
The recently dubbed “Earth 2” now looms large overhead, the full details of its uncanny similarities to Earth becoming more and more apparent. A company named United Space Adventures advertises an essay contest to determine who will man their soon-to-launch trip to “Earth 2.”
Rhoda eventually enters the contest and decides that she must visit John to apologize and express her regret for her actions. When she is confronted with what John has become, a despondent and pathetic shell of his former self, she cannot bring herself to go through with the apology and under the guise of an employee for a house-cleaning company begins to help John clean his mess of a house.
What could have easily become a paint-by-numbers Sundance Film about a blossoming relationship built on an unorthodox foundation becomes so much more under the tutelage of co-writer/director Mike Cahill. Sure there is plenty of easily identifiable symbolism in the form of Rhoda’s coworker and her “cleaning” profession, but it is all cast in a different light through the use of a brilliant sci-fi concept.
This concept, something that would feel right at home in an episode of The Twilight Zone or an early episode of Star Trek, never consumes the picture. Most of what we hear about the alternate Earth we hear through radio broadcast and televised news. These are all very effective, especially a scene featuring the first contact with the other planet, which is both revelatory and horrifying at the same time.
The reveal of what exactly this planet is comes slowly, allowing the audience to slowly ask questions about how they would respond in a similar situation. Eventually it is revealed that the planet is occupied by mirror images of everyone on Earth and that the timeline on the two planets is identical.
This revelation allows Cahill to paint his wonderfully constructed story of Rhoda and John’s relationship in a completely unique way. Instead of asking can Rhoda figuratively forgive herself for her actions; Another Earth asks if Rhoda met “herself” could she forgive herself?
Some brilliant acting, especially from newcomer Brit Marlin, assists the story in asking these questions. Brit, who incidentally co-wrote and produced the movie, commands the film with her performance. Cahill places her alone in tight, lingering close-ups that Brit is able to fill with pathos and ennui. Her transformation is not only believable but it is completely relatable; by the end of the film I felt that her plight was my very own.
The film is grounded with an Earthy color palette that is reflected by the strange Earth that floats in the sky, an effect that is always surreal in the best of ways. Cahill’s use of quick-zooms can be distracting and feel a bit unnecessary at times, but whenever he locks the camera down and focuses his photography it is quite controllably surreal. Cahill reinforces the struggles that Rhoda has with herself with a mirror image motif that wouldn’t be unfamiliar to fans of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique.
In the end, Another Earth is able to rise far above the standard Sundance fare with a compelling sci-fi concept, inspired acting, and surreal imagery that successfully reinforces the central concept of the film.