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.
The video for Another Earth is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it doesn’t take long to see a few of the limits from the print’s meager origins. On top of the overly digital look of the movie, there are whole scenes that are simply a notch or so below what we’re now used to with most Blu-ray encodings. Also, some of the composite special effects shots lose an appreciable amount of detail. On the up side, they really have done a quality job with their limited resources, and you’d be hard pressed to find a better job done with the same limitations. The blue-tinted and high-contrast tone of the film actually does help to mask some of the other shortcomings, and the end result is still a commendable achievement.
The audio doesn’t really have any of the same caveats, as it’s quite on par with dialogue-focused dramas. Speech remains clear throughout the film, and the sparse ambient sounds that are used are handled judiciously. It’s a front-centered mix and that almost never changes, but that’s pretty in line with the chosen style of the film. One nice surprise is the excellent music score by the band Fall On Your Sword. Their moody, low-key electronic music is a considerable aid in creating the melancholy atmosphere of the movie. And although still handled mostly by the front speakers, it is delivered with able clarity.
There is a decent spread of supplements for this indie title. First up is a suite of deleted scenes (HD, 9:20) that introduce a new sub-sub-plot, as well as some items that are prefaced with why they were removed from the final edit. The music video for “The First Time I Saw Jupiter” (HD, 3:19) by the group Fall On Your Sword is a nicely done music short that is set in the school from the film. There are three interview pieces from Fox Movie Channel Presents, the first with director/co-writer/cinematographer/editor Mike Cahill (SD, 4:17), then one with actor/co-writer Brit Marling (SD, 4:22), and finally with actor William Mapother (SD, 4:22). Of the three, Mapother’s is the most interesting, elaborating on the typical “small budget” story with some of the logistics of shooting the film.
The Science Behind Another Earth (HD, 2:39) is a surprisingly short discussion between Cahill, Marling and an astrophysicist about the idea of alternate worlds. It’s a conversation that feels like it just gets going before it comes to an abrupt close. Similarly, Creating Another Earth (HD, 2:29) is a candid discussion between Cahill and Marling about how the bulk of the movie was literally made by way of family, favors and credit cards. But again, the discussion is almost over as soon as it gets going. Also included is the theatrical trailer for the film (HD, 2:11).
The package is a triple disc set, with the movie and all supplements on the Blu-ray, a movie-only DVD, and a stand-alone disc containing a digital copy.
Another Earth is actually quite a testament to indie filmmaking and what can be accomplished with hardly a budget to speak of. It’s a shame that its story flounders by being at turns unrealistic (even within the loose realm of science fiction) and unfocused. It’s still worth a rental, and is actually more of a must see from a technical standpoint for those with interest in DIY filmmaking.