Review: Another Earth

If you could meet yourself, what would you say? Rhoda (Brit Marling) ponders the philosophical connotations of alternate reality in "Another Earth."

Hindsight and fate are permanently intertwined. We look back at our lives and the pieces fall into place: chances, coincidences, choices. Maybe we don’t know WHY something happened, but we know what it led to; and to make sense of it all, maybe we decide that things were just meant to be that way. But it doesn’t quite work if you look the other direction, does it? Focus exclusively on the future, and there is no line whatsoever, just infinite possibilities. We wonder what could be, and therefore regret what could have been.

“Another Earth,” the moody brain-child of lead actress Brit Marling, tortures its protagonists by making this existential debate excruciatingly literal. In a philosophical sci-fi twist worthy of Tarkovsky, Marling and co-writer/director Mike Cahill wonder what would happen if, say, there were another Earth. Earth 2 makes a sudden and mysterious appearance in the night sky, its continents and oceans an exact replica of our own planet. And then, in a suitably unsettling scene, we discover that the resemblance might be more than geographical: Earth 2 is our exact mirror image, right down to its inhabitants.

But is it really exact? At what point, if any, did the synchronicity break? Have the Earth 2 versions of ourselves made all the same choices? The same mistakes? For Rhoda (Marling), the possibility of a different life is haunting. As a bright, perhaps even brilliant teenager, she was on her way to MIT, the possibilities endless. But a single, drunken misstep quickly limited her path to one of isolation and remorse. Ashamed, Rhoda seeks out the victim of her carelessness, a successful middle-aged musician and conductor (William Mapother), hoping to apologize; but at the last minute she loses her nerve, claiming to be from a cleaning service offering a free trial door-to-door (in a scenario that I found harder to accept than the existence of Earth 2).

The burgeoning relationship between Rhoda and John is just unlikely enough to feel completely natural. They’re both damaged souls, lives irrevocably changed by the accident; it just happens that one of them is also to blame for the incident in the first place. Rhoda walks a fine line, caught between the truth and a shot at happiness and normalcy.

But then, there is option C: in another unlikely turn of affairs, Rhoda wins an online essay contest. The prize? A spot on the first shuttle from Earth 1 to Earth 2. However improbable, Rhoda’s winning essay provides us with a nice reminder that the world was not necessarily explored by the best and the brightest, but by those with nothing to lose, or something to escape. When the known is painful, the unknown can start looking mighty tempting.

“Another Earth” is a nice sci-fi follow-up to Duncan Jones’ 2009 film “Moon” in its focus on ideas and implications rather than special effects. Indeed, for the most part, “Another Earth” just looks like any other low-budget indie drama: gritty, intimate, narrow. There are only two shots in the film that make it something extraordinary. The first is repeated over and over, in various iterations: that killer image of Earth 2, dangling in the sky over our planet, a giant middle finger to the concept of fate, the visualization of “what if?” The raw symbolism is overwhelming, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Marling came up with the narrative for the entire film from that one frame. The second shot is the film’s last, and it would be spoiling Marling and Cahill’s ingenuity to reveal it here. All I can say is, it’ll certainly leave you pondering.

Marling and Mapother both have a natural ease to their performances, which is critical since they are essentially the only two characters in the film. Brief appearances from Rhoda’s family and co-workers provide just enough background to satisfy us.

If I seem a little more terse than usual in this review, it is not because I didn’t like the movie; in fact, it’s just the opposite. Rhoda’s dilemma resonated with me in ways that would be difficult to describe. Sure, most of us don’t have such critical lapses in judgment on our conscience, but who wouldn’t take pause at the chance to have things turn out a bit…differently?

Suffice to say, perhaps, this is the kind of movie I wish that I could make.

Now in theaters.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

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