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Another Earth Review

another-earth-movie
RATING:
(2 STARS)

With Another Earth, director Mike Cahill really goes out on a limb. It’s one thing to make an indie sci-fi film about the discovery of a new planet that exactly mirrors our own, but it’s something else entirely to put that fascinating concept completely in the background and instead focus on two broken individuals and their complex relationship. And on one hand, I greatly admire Cahill’s ballsy approach, but he never fully commits, doing the film a real disservice. These two disparate stories just don’t work together, and the more Cahill vacillates between them, the less you care about both of them.

The two individuals at the center of Another Earth are Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling) and John Burroughs (William Mapother). She’s a bright, young girl who’s about to head to MIT to study astronomy. He’s a composer, husband, and father of a young boy. Driving home from a party one night, Rhoda hears a radio DJ announce that a new planet has been discovered and can be seen by the naked eye. As she glances up to spot it, she loses control of her car, and crashes into John’s—killing his wife and son, and putting him in a coma. Four years later, Rhoda is released from prison (apparently she had been driving drunk), and John has awoken from the coma. She flounders about without much purpose, even attempting to kill herself at one point, but two things are never far from her mind—John, whom she begins cleaning houses for, and the planet, now called Earth 2, which looms large in the sky at all hours of the day.

The entire subplot of Earth 2 stays in the background for almost all the film. What we know about it is that it’s essentially the exact same place as Earth, everyone has a double on the planet, and a wealthy man is giving one civilian the chance to make the trip. There’s a fantastic scene as Rhoda’s family gathers around the television to watch a scientist attempt to make first contact. The responses she gets back from Earth 2 are startling and fascinating.

And though this would have made for a much more interesting focus to the film, I don’t object to Cahill’s decision to make this primarily about Rhoda and John, despite the fact that their storyline is pretty familiar. Kristin Scott Thomas fans will be reminded a lot of I’ve Loved You So Long, while the presence of William Mapother brought me back to Todd Field’s In the Bedroom. Another Earth, unfortunately, can’t touch these films because it doesn’t commit all the way to its premise. Earth 2 is too much of a player for us to become fully invested in Rhoda’s story. When she’s with John, I couldn’t help but wonder when we’d be getting back to the cool stuff.

Then, there’s the ending, which is a complete mess. The film’s final shot, really, is what took a disappointing film and made it plain bad. I obviously won’t get into the specifics, but it sends the film in a totally different direction, making it feel cheap and gimmicky. Cahill is going for shock and awe, and though he gets it, he completely compromises what came before it.

Despite my issues with the film, I quite liked the two lead performances. Relative newcomer Brit Marling is exceptional as Rhoda. Here’s a girl who had everything and lost it all so suddenly. She’s a shell of her former self after being released from prison, and it’s unclear if she’ll ever regain any sense of purpose. In one heartbreaking scene, she bumps into a former classmate, who’s now successful and dating a knockout. She’s an unkempt janitor, and can hardly contain the embarrassment when telling him this. 2011 has been a good year for young breakout indie actresses. I don’t think Marling quite reaches the level of Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene, but I do hope people take notice of her.

William Mapother is a guy you’ll almost certainly recognize (I did from both LOST and the aforementioned In the Bedroom), but he doesn’t get to take center stage much. Another Earth gives him a real opportunity to shine, and the actor seizes it with a searing performance of a man torn apart by grief and regret. John, despite having a very docile career as a composer, is a scary man, who’s capable of both great kindness and an occasional fit of rage. Mapother is good at keep the latter characteristic at bay until absolutely necessary, making the switch both sudden and all the more frightening.

Another Earth was one of the more buzzed about titles coming out of Sundance 2011, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a low-budget movie with high aspirations and a quirky premise, but it doesn’t live up to its promise. Still, I see promise in Cahill and hope he’s got a few more solid ideas. My advice to him: Stay focused and leave the cheap tricks on the cutting room floor.

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