The big deal about Another Earth is its mind-blowing premise. An Earth identical to our own has sprung up in the sky, complete with its own moon, and it hangs there menacingly, portending a new and uncertain reality. The most remarkable thing, really, is how this brilliant, nutty idea only exists in the background of the action, which is essentially a love story between the main characters, a young student named Rhoda, played by Brit Marling, and a composer, played by William Mapother.
The film opens with a devastating event, and everything that happens afterward is the unfolding of its consequences. Right away I admired how deftly the simple images painted such a monumental picture of sadness and regret. We flash forward four years with Rhoda leaving prison, a shell of a woman with no choice but to just go grimly on. She takes a custodial job at a high school. I've done that job and I understand the appeal. Her caseworker argues she should be doing something with her mind, but in fact, the reliable monotony of sanitation work is just the thing for a cerebral person. Cleaning toilets, one after another, a long porcelain line like so many beaded pearls—it's the epitome of Zen.
Fans of moody girls will have no choice but to fall in love with Rhoda, and I almost wonder if her beauty isn't distracting. Lord knows the film tries to make her less appealing. They put her in coveralls, strip her of makeup and muss up her hair for naught. The fact that Marling co-wrote the script with director Mike Cahill of course does nothing to temper my crush. The composer feels the same way, but if their relationship status ever made it to Facebook, oh, you know it: it's complicated.
Remember, there's another Earth hanging in space and a confrontation between the two worlds is inevitable. SETI Scientist Dr. Joan Tallis (Diane Ciesla) receives a radio transmission from the other Earth. She speaks to the void in a live television broadcast, and it answers back in the same voice. She thinks it's reverb, but of course it isn't, and in one swift moment the big surprise of Earth 2 is revealed. She's the first person to meet her mirror self, and we watch the reaction of Rhoda's family. "What does that mean?" Rhoda's mother asks, panicked, and I'm not ashamed to tell you, this scene terrified and exhilarated me. I was grateful to be in the back row of the Wilma with only a few other people in the audience, lest anybody hear my muffled sobbing.
Another Earth is a good example of how scant resources can result in serious creativity. A more commercial and lesser film would have pulled farther back and centered around the SETI scientists, the politics and watered-down sentiments about what it all meant. Instead, in this version, the one that favors ordinary human sadness, this is Ciesla's only scene, and she only needs one.
Earth 2 reminds me of the time surrounding 9/11. Here was a globally significant event, shared by everyone, that you couldn't ignore if you tried. It hung heavy in the air between us, but at the end of the day, for most, Ground Zero was far, far away. I remember going to a gas station that afternoon and looking into the eyes of the attendant, a total stranger, and we were both thinking, "Oh my God, that thing that just happened!" But what is there to say? We didn't say anything. Incredible as it is, after four years of living with this other Earth hanging over your head, you would still have to go to work every day, fill up your gas tank, risk having your heart broken. A second moon couldn't touch your own drama.
And then we have the last scene, which has baffled many viewers, and while I found what happened genuinely surprising, to me it makes perfect sense. I found myself saying, "Oh, of course!"
I loved this movie. Having said that, I'm sure it's not for everyone. Certain absurd plot points require some forgiveness. (A privately funded essay contest that sends just one person to Earth 2? Okay...) It moves slowly and says little, and I should warn you, it's not even a little bit funny. A cynical person will say the film is too sentimental, or the science is impractical, but do yourself a favor and don't concern yourself with the science. Pretend you're reading a poem and you'll get a lot more out of the experience.
Note: Did I mention the film's language of subtlety? There's a scene where Rhoda visits her Indian coworker, who has made himself blind and deaf with bleach, and she traces letters into his hand. I wasn't ready for it and I missed the message. Please, if you see this movie tonight, will you watch carefully and email me what she wrote? I'd really like to know.
Another Earth ends its run at the Wilma tonight, Thursday, Sept. 15.