Friday, August 12, 2011

Another Earth: Celestial salvation?

Another Earth (2011) • View trailer for Another Earth
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for thematic elements, profanity and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang

Science-fiction films come in several distinct flavors.

Hollywood delights in the most obvious end of the spectrum: the flamboyant space operas filled with ray guns, robots and other ostentatious hardware. Think Star Wars. At the other extreme, we have quieter stories that employ futuristic what-ifs solely as a backdrop to the primary character drama. Cliff Robertson's Academy Award-winning turn in 1968's Charly comes to mind here.
Rhoda (Brit Marling), a young woman desperately trying to flee the mess she
has made of her life, wonders if some sort of solution might be offered by the
mysterious, newly discovered planet that is revealed to be increasingly
Earth-like, as the weeks and months pass.

The latter type always intrigue me, particularly those not immediately recognized as science fiction.

While Fox Searchlight is marketing Another Earth to capitalize on its sci-fi trappings, director Mike Cahill's thoughtful indie drama actually is a study of guilt, and whether any act of atonement is possible in the wake of an unforgivable act. Cahill co-wrote the story with Brit Marling, who also stars. The film took two awards at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and it's easy to see why; Cahill and Marling quietly weave a staggering futuristic element into a primarily real-world drama, which leads to an unexpectedly clever denouement.

That said, their film is slow, at times almost leaden. Aside from brief encounters with incidental people, this is primarily a two-character piece without much dialogue. Marling and co-star William Mapother are expected to convey a lot of emotion and anguish via body language and facial expression, and neither has the subtle acting chops to pull that off at all times. Quite often, yes, but not consistently.

Additionally, the film's low-budget origins work against it. Cahill also handles the cinematography and editing, and his cheap, grainy film stock does him no favors. While he might argue that the bland, washed-out color palette is an intentional artistic decision intended to convey his protagonist's drab, day-to-day existence, the inadequate lighting and washed-out visuals are distracting ... and they pull us out of the story.

We meet Rhoda Williams (Marling) as a bright teen giddy over having just been accepted into MIT's astrophysics program. She celebrates this triumph at a party and then unwisely drives home. Distracted further by a startling announcement on the car radio — the discovery of another planet near Earth — Rhoda leans out the window to scan the night sky ... while still driving.

The collision is inevitable, and entirely her fault. She destroys the family in the other vehicle, putting the driver into a coma and killing his pregnant wife and their young child.

Cahill handles this sequence with admirable restraint, allowing us to fill in the details as Rhoda stands, aghast, unable to comprehend what she has done. She cannot move, and as the sound of sirens rises in the background, Marling deftly conveys, without words, this young woman's realization that her bright future has been snuffed out like the lives she has just taken.

Four years pass, in a single black text card.

We next encounter Rhoda on the day she concludes her prison sentence. She's collected by her parents and younger brother; nobody knows what to say. Her attic bedroom at home, carefully preserved as she left it, feels much too cluttered for somebody who has spent four years in a cell; she strips it to the bare essentials and sleeps on the floor.

Needing a job, if only to go through the expected motions, Rhoda dismisses a placement officer's attempt to get her into something appropriate for her intelligence. Rhoda doesn't want to interact with people, and therefore takes a menial job as a school custodian. Her only companion is an ancient fellow custodian — character actor Kumar Pallana, as Purdeep — forever lost in his own thoughts.

Rhoda watches the schoolgirls, as they charge happily from one class to the next: so much like she was, back in that other life. Now, they may as well be an alien species.

The new planet, meanwhile, apparently is much like Earth: Fresh information has trickled in during the intervening four years, with additional bits of news occasionally overheard on television newscasts, or during offhand remarks by radio DJs. Same land masses. Same atmospheric content. Same ... everything?

Still unable to move beyond her guilt, Rhoda seeks out and finds the sole survivor of her act: John Burroughs (William Mapother), a once-rising composer, recovered from his coma and now living alone. She visits the house, intending to apologize ... but can't, when she finally sees the degree to which his life has been shattered. He, too, cannot move on. She fabricates a story about working for a housekeeping firm that is offering a "newcomers special"; aware of the filth of his environment, he accepts.

This becomes a weekly pattern, and we understand Rhoda's motivation, even while questioning her sanity: She hopes, somehow, to improve his life by at least restoring order to his home. But the threat of discovery, uncomfortable and then unsettling, ramps up to horrific as her plan succeeds all too well; John shakes off his funk, and grows to appreciate and even anticipate her visits. The inevitable questions start to surface, and Rhoda finds them increasingly difficult to dodge.

(Right about now, you'll be wondering why a clearly intelligent man wouldn't have learned who killed his wife and children. Cahill and Marling's script provides an answer, but it comes way beyond the point we need it. I'll save you the bewilderment: John did try to learn the other driver's identity. But because Rhoda was a minor at the time of the accident, the information is denied him. And, so, he has no reason to even imagine the true reason for this young woman's ongoing presence.)

As interest has built regarding this newly discovered Earth, a Richard Branson-esque figure organizes and offers high-priced tickets on an upcoming shuttle between worlds. To maximize public involvement, one seat is offered via a contest, to whomever composes the best 500-word essay explaining the writer's desire to make the journey.

And so these various plot wheels continue to turn, and we wonder who will be hurt next, and how badly ... and how, precisely, this startling new celestial visitor will figure into these events.

Cahill's suspenseful build is subtle and absorbing, if somewhat inert. We must be content with small bits of progress: Rhoda's first shy but genuine smile, John's softening expressions and re-awakened interest in music. A shared video game is telling; John teaches Rhoda how to play a Wii boxing avatar. When Marling raises her hands to shield her face, her initially stricken gaze speaks volumes; psychologically, at least, Rhoda is genuinely terrified of being hit for real.

Marling and Mapother play their shared scenes well; the building chemistry effectively increases our discomfort. As Cahill intends.

On the other hand, Pallana's Purdeep is flat-out weird, and his eventual character arc is beyond bizarre. I cannot imagine what Cahill and Marling intended here, but they sure as hell don't bring it off.

Similarly, we cannot question the celestial physics at play. New planets don't just appear out of nowhere, and Cahill and Marling don't even bother with issues such as gravitational forces, changing tidal and climate behavior, or anything else. We must accept this as a plot device: this story's one impossible thing to believe before breakfast. And, in truth, it isn't too troublesome; I was willing to roll with it.

As an historical footnote, we've played this game once before. The equally intriguing 1969 British sci-fi film, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, involved the discovery of another planet in Earth's orbit, but on the exact opposite side of our sun; this explains why it remained undiscovered for so long. Astronauts Roy Thinnes and Ian Hendry are sent to investigate, with results that move in a direction quite similar to where Cahill and Marling take their story.

Another Earth is far from perfect, and many will dismiss it as a dull, dreary snooze. But I found it engaging for the same reason I've enjoyed other thoughtful, character-driven sci-fi films such as Colossus: The Forbin Project, the aforementioned Charly, The Quiet Earth, Contact, The Prestige and the recent Moon. Since this is Cahill's feature-length directorial and writing debut, I'll call it an impressive — if flawed — first effort, and await future projects with genuine interest.

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