Judge Clark Douglas is convinced the grass is a little greener on Earth-2.
Does a new earth mean a chance at another life?
"What would we really like to see if we could stand outside ourselves and look at us?"
Facts of the Case
Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling, Community) is an exceptionally gifted high schooler who has just been accepted to MIT. To celebrate, she engages in a night of drinking and partying with her friends. Alas, she foolishly decides to drive home by herself while intoxicated, and crashes into another vehicle as a result. The accident puts John Burroughs (William Mapother, In the Bedroom) into a coma; Burroughs' wife and child are killed. After John recovers, Rhoda determines to find a way to make amends.
Meanwhile, a major cosmic event is taking place. Another earth has appeared in the sky; a world which seems to be identical to our own. A trip to "Earth 2" is being planned, and an essay contest is being held to determine which individual citizen will be permitted to go along with the official team. Rhoda enters the contest, hoping she'll have a chance to meet up with an alternate version of herself.
Intriguingly, Another Earth is one of two 2011 films centered around the idea of another planet arriving in close proximity to earth. Both movies feature troubled female protagonists, and both filmed with jittery hand-held cameras, despite the presence of numerous static classical special effects. Even more intriguingly, neither of these two science-fiction films are particularly concerned with the "science" element of the story. Lars von Trier's Melancholia uses the other planet as a springboard to explore the nature of depression, while Mike Cahill's Another Earth uses the arrival of an alternate universe as a springboard to explore questions of identity and what it means to be human. While the latter may not have the devastating power or resonance of the former, it's still an intriguing and ambitious effort.
The story of Another Earth's creation is arguably as interesting as the film itself: Cahill figured out how to achieve his special effects shots he on a low budget, and together with actress Brit Marling developed a story around the notion of another earth coming into close proximity with our own. He shot a large chunk of the movie for next to nothing with a digital camera, then was able to persuade familiar face William Mapother (best known as Tom Cruise's cousin and Ethan on Lost) to take the key role of John Burroughs for a minuscule amount of pay. The film went on to win the Alfred P. Sloane prize at the Sundance Film Festival, and now serves as something of a "just grab a camera and make a movie" inspiration for aspiring filmmakers.
There are quite a few shades of Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique present in Another Earth, which should give you a good indication of where the film's priorities are. This isn't about rocket ships or tricky scientific conundrums, but rather basic human concerns. While the questions being asked are fairly compelling, I couldn't help but feel the exploration of said questions was slight. Cahill's symbolism is less subtle and potent than Kieslowski's, and his lack of technical prowess prevents us from being as thoroughly absorbed by the material as we were with The Double Life of Veronique. Even so, Kieslowski's own early films were pretty rough around the edges, and it's not too difficult to see Cahill developing into a similar filmmaker over time.
Another Earth benefits from two exceptional performances. Marling is something of a revelation, carrying the film with a naturalistic ease and selling some rather challenging moments of inner torment. It may not be Oscar-caliber, but it's an exceptional acting debut which should earn her plenty of offers. Meanwhile, character actor Mapother seems to relish the opportunity to dig into a more substantial role than he's usually handed; bringing his all to some emotionally-charged scenes and generating impressive chemistry with Marling. A few other characters turn up in very minor roles (including a slightly distracting Robin Taylor of Step Up 3D as Rhoda's obnoxious brother), but this is largely a two-person show. Thankfully, it has leads capable of ensuring the adventure never feels amateurish.
Another Earth (Blu-ray) looks about as good as it can, under the circumstances, just don't expect a visual treat. Though an increasing number of recent low-budget indie features have demonstrated grade-A cinematography (Azazel Jacobs' Terri springs to mind), this actually looks like it was made on the cheap. The 1.85:1/1080p high definition image is soft a good deal of the time, and noise can be rather excessive in darker scenes. The level of detail is respectable, given the source material, but this movie was never going to look like The Tree of Life. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio is a notch better, with an otherworldly (sorry) score blending seamlessly with the dialogue. It's a very quiet track; the music rarely rises above a murmur and sound design is minimal, but it gets the job done. I'm honestly disappointed in the supplemental package, as I would have loved an in-depth look at how this tiny movie came to life. Instead, we get a batch of fluffy EPK-style "Fox Movie Channel Presents" puff pieces ("Direct Effect with Mike Cahill," "In Character with Brit Marling," "In Character with William Mapother," "The Science Behind Another Earth" and "Creating Another Earth"), some deleted scenes, a music video, a trailer, a DVD copy, and a digital copy.
Another Earth doesn't quite manage to live up to its ambitions, and yet I can't help feel it's only a warm-up for better things to come. Cahill is a director to watch; those who dig more philosophically-inclined cinema ought to give his low-budget debut a look.
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