Another Earth is a collaboration between filmmaker Mike Cahill and actor Brit Marling. It’s a dramatic, science fiction-inspired story about mistakes and regret in life and the dream of choosing an alternate path. The movie won both the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize and a Special Jury Award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.
There are two thematic storylines that drive Another Earth. The primary one is the result of a fateful decision. Rhoda (Britt Marling) is a young woman with everything going for her, as a successful student who has been accepted into MIT. But one night after a party, in an inebriated state, she accidentally runs her car head-on into another at an intersection, killing a wife and child and leaving the husband in a coma. Instead of going to MIT, she ends up in jail, and her life takes a dramatic alternate route. After leaving jail, she takes a job as a janitor at a local high school. As fate would have it, she manages to find the husband (William Mapother) from the accident, whose life has also taken a less promising turn. By posing as a house cleaner, she attempts to help him out and hopefully atone for her past sins.
Mixed in with this is the second storyline, which is almost more of a philosophical backdrop. There appears in the sky the presence of another planet that is moving closer and closer to Earth. As the study of this planet gains traction, it is soon revealed that it’s an alternate Earth, populated with the same people. An expedition is set up for volunteers to take a discovery mission to the new planet. For many, the discovery becomes a thought lesson in how our lives could have been different if only an alternate path had been taken, either for better or worse.
First the good news. Another Earth does a fantastic job of wringing good performances and hefty visual style from its all but bare bones budget. Although all films shoot higher than just the “no-budget movie that looks surprisingly good” line, in this case that is something to be lauded. The film makers have shown considerable promise, and both Marling and Mapother bring real emotional weight to their troubled characters. Even the soundtrack is its own indie gem, and there are elements all throughout the production that point to bright things to come from those involved.
And I wish I could leave it at that, but the story of the movie itself often lets the rest of the work down. It’s certainly not a bad story, but it is rather typical drama fodder saddled onto an under-utilized science fiction prop. The main issue is that the two storylines mentioned before rarely have much to do with each other. The bulk of the film is simply the relationship and tension between the two main characters and each dealing with their loss. If isolated and explored further it could have been a perfectly serviceable drama. Likewise, the alternate world angle could have been focused on more fully, and with some interesting possibilities. But instead, we have some characters coming together through quite frankly unbelievable circumstances, and oh yeah there’s this other Earth in the sky.
There are certainly things to like and admire while watching Another Earth, but it’s overshadowed, ironically, by its own “what could have been”, if the authors had just taken a different direction. A little less after-school special on storyline A and a little more Arthur C. Clarke on storyline B could have made for a truly captivating picture.