Science-fiction should ask questions. The whole foundation of the genre is speculation: why we’re here and where we’re going, what makes us human and whether those qualities are shared by other life forms in this universe. The problem with modern sci-fi movies is that so few of them can be bothered ask questions. “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” doesn’t ask questions, it just makes statements. “This is what a robot looks like.” “This is what it looks like when he transforms.” “This is a big action scene.”
I don’t love “Another Earth” but I appreciate the fact that it asks questions. It presents a premise — that there is another Earth, identical to our own in every way, floating out there in space — and interrogates it. How would someone react to that discovery? What would it mean to someone who felt that their life had gone down the wrong path? And how far would they go to try to fix the mistakes they’d made?
Our someone is Rhoda, played by the film’s co-writer, Brit Marling. On the day this other Earth is first discovered, Rhoda, a college student studying astrophysics, makes a terrible mistake: she drinks and drives. That decision had disastrous consequences on the life of a Yale music professor named John (William Mapother). A few years later, Rhoda has paid for the crime she committed but still feels crushed under the weight of her guilt. She takes a job as a school janitor and spends most of the rest of her time walking around with her sweatshirt’s hood pulled over her head, as if she’s trying to hide away from the world and from herself.
On a whim, Rhoda visits the site of her accident and happens to see John, who is there as well. She follows him home, and learns about what happened to him after their accident. She wants to apologize, but chickens out at the last minute. Instead, she pretends to be a maid and soon she’s regularly coming to clean John’s house. The two begin to talk and grow closer.
Meanwhile, that other Earth is drawing closer and closer to our own. The two planets make contact. They appear to exact duplicates of one another. A wealthy futurist decides to pilot a private space mission to the so-called “Earth 2,” and invites ordinary citizens to submit essays explaining why they deserve to make the journey. Rhoda is intrigued. If she went, could she meet herself? And would that version of herself had made the same bad choices she did? A second Earth might mean a second chance.
All of this could be the basis of a two hundred million dollar blockbuster directed by Roland Emmerich. But director and co-writer Mike Cahill uses this great concept to tell a very different kind of sci-fi story. “Another Earth” is not an outward journey through space but an inward journey through a woman’s tormented soul. Marling is wonderful at evoking Rhoda’s grief, and her relationship with the brooding Mapother is a moving one. Cahill doggedly maintains his microscopic focus; all the exposition we get about Earth 2 is cleverly conveyed through sideways glances at television screens or snippets of overheard radio reports. And the image of that other Earth hanging in our sky, dripping with foreboding or promise, is a beautiful and powerful one.
The problem with “Another Earth” is not the questions it asks, but rather the questions the audience asks of it. Cahill and Marling have, to some degree, put their themes before their characters. In order to pull off this meditation on regret and redemption, they write themselves into a few corners they never really escape. They rely on too many coincidences to connect the dots, and all of the absurdity begins to pull us out of the story.
Suspension of disbelief is a funny thing. It’s easy to buy that there’s another Earth exactly like our own, and that after thousands of years hiding behind the sun it’s suddenly headed our way. It’s easy to disregard the fact that such an event would probably cause environmental catastrophes on a global scale. That we accept. But for some reason, it’s really hard to ignore the fact that John should know exactly who Rhoda is. How can he not know the woman who completely ruined his life? Very late in the film, the screenplay offers an explanation how Rhoda could pull off this massive charade. It’s plausible, but it’s also contrived.
In small, individual moments, “Another Earth” is a beautiful film. The scenes in that Connecticut farmhouse are tender and touching, and Cahill and Marling raise some interesting questions about the human condition. Purely on the basis of its ambition and uniqueness, “Another Earth” is worth watching. It’s just a shame the filmmakers couldn’t figure out a way to bring their characters together that didn’t feel so forced. This movie gives you a lot to think about, and a few things you wish you could forget.