|copyright 2011 Fox Searchlight Pictures|
“Another Earth”, a film putatively about second chances, misses its chance to make a point. In this meandering character piece, a mirror version of Earth has been discovered, a world where we each have a duplicate self. What this means, philosophically or practically, to our world is never addressed, as director Mike Cahill chooses to focus his feature-film debut on Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling).
We meet Rhoda at the beginning of the film, when she is a bright 17 year-old student celebrating her acceptance to M.I.T. She leaves the party and is driving home when she hears a report on the radio about the discovery of the planet, which is soon dubbed Earth Two. While drunkenly scanning the sky for a glimpse of the planet, she collides with a car, killing a mother and child and leaving the father in a coma. Four years later, Rhoda is graduating from prison rather than university. She hides herself away from society, taking a job as a custodian at the local high school. The cleaning that she pursues as a heavy-handed metaphor to cleanse herself doesn’t work, leaving her restless. She enters a contest, hoping to win a place on a privately-funded space mission to Earth Two, wanting to escape her actions.
After an unsuccessful suicide attempt, she approaches John Burroughs (William Mapother), the man who survived the wreck. She goes intending to apologize for what she has done. She loses her nerve and, through a twist of shaky logic, winds up as his cleaning woman. John is a wreck, living in squalour, having let both the house and himself go. Mapother plays him reluctant and taciturn at the beginning, as if he has almost forgotten how to speak, so deep is his sense of isolation. With him not realizing who she is, the two grow close, Rhoda drawing him out of his despair and he, unknowingly, alleviating her guilt.
The film is ultimately unsatisfying because it fails to address the nature of the pair’s relationship. Rhoda is being unspeakably cruel, seeking to escape her guilt and responsibility rather than accepting it and coming to terms with it. She shows no consideration for the effect of her deceit on John, only wishing to feel better. The character is young, which may explain her self-centeredness, but the question of her narcissism and cruelty is never addressed. We are meant to feel sorry for Rhoda. A tale of redemption must first have the redeemed search for some kind of self-awareness. Jason Reitman deals with narcissistic protagonists in both “Up in the Air” and “Young Adult” more successfully, making their narcissism the focus of those films. In “Another Earth”, Cahill seems unaware of Rhoda’s character. One can’t believe Rhoda is ready or deserving of a second chance, either on this Earth or the other—where, she hopes, she didn’t kill anyone—because she hasn’t owned up to her actions. Even the struggle to do so would make her more sympathetic.
Another Earth is a low-budget, indie production and the sets and photography show it. There is nothing in particular to be faulted, but it is not visually distinguished. The focus is on the characters and the performances. Mapother’s performance has the required hint of neediness. Marling does, at times, come across as lost and hanging on the edge of adulthood. The real failing of the film is in the script (which Cahill and Marling co-wrote), not the performances themselves.
Despite a premise that sounds like science fiction, the broader implications of how such a discovery would affect our world, either physically or culturally, is never explored in any depth. The “what if?” element that characterizes good science fiction never comes into play. Putting the story into a broader context of a world facing an existential crisis would have made the mirror Earth central, rather than a contrivance.
“Another Earth” fails to make full use of its premise, fails as a redemption story, and fails to explore the narcissistic cruelty of its protagonist. Maybe the Earth Two version of this film does all of those things, but until it is available, “Another Earth” can be skipped without regret.