A bright young woman recently accepted into MIT's astrophysics program, aspires to explore the cosmos. John Burroughs, a brilliant composer, has just reached the pinnacle of his profession, and is about to have a second child with his loving wife. On the eve of the discovery of a duplicate Earth, tragedy strikes, and the lives of these strangers become irrevocably intertwined. Estranged from the world and the selves they once knew, the two outsiders begin an unlikely love affair, which reawakens them to life. But when one of them is presented with the opportunity to travel to the other Earth and embrace an alternative reality, which new life will they choose?
A numinous, sci-fi premise is given the elliptical indie storytelling treatment in Another Earth, documentary director Mike Cahill’s first feature film. The most outrageous elements of the script (which Cahill co-wrote with his star, Brit Marling) are passed over lightly, leaving ample room for the emotional interplay that propels the film. This approach’s tenability fluctuates as the story goes on, and more questions arise about the ambiguous conceit propping up an otherwise conventional story of guilt and reconciliation in the wake of a trauma. Ultimately Cahill pulls it off through the sheer will of style and the strong performances of his two leads.
Rhoda (Marling) is a high school graduate biding her time before beginning her education at one of the most prestigious technological institutes in the world. Blonde, lovely, and vivacious, the world is about to open for her when a late-night accident divides her life into before and after. Rhoda’s eyes are on the sky, not the road, when she crashes into a car carrying John Burroughs (William Mapother), his pregnant wife, and their young son; only John survives. What caught Rhoda’s attention was a radio report announcing that a second Earth-like planet had been discovered and was visible to us after thousands of years spent hidden behind the sun. A brief series of jump-cut tableaux intimate her four-year incarceration — a different sort of education — and carry us through to her release. Cahill has a keen eye for the small but elaborative detail, and images like that of Rhoda poking her finger into a pot of glitter upon her return to her still very teenage bedroom fill out the atmospheric silences offered in lieu of dialogue.
Guilt-ridden and unable to face her peers, Rhoda is compelled to clean and organise, eventually taking a janitorial job at her old high school, where she works alongside another willfully invisible figure played by Kumar Pallana. Drawn toward her victim — a Yale music professor who has only recently emerged from a coma — in increments, Rhoda eventually makes it to his doorstep. Instead of an apology she offers a different kind of amends — house cleaning services—and John, unaware of Rhoda’s identity and living in depressive squalor, allows her in. Behind the long and delicate scenes that limn their developing rapport is Rhoda’s decision to enter a contest for a ticket to what is called 'Earth Two," a planet which, it is determined in a low-fi but effective sequence, is a mirror image of our own, complete with duplicates of all of its inhabitants. Rhoda is required to write an essay arguing for her own candidacy, an argument that is expressed more concisely during a conversation with John about what they might say to their other self: 'Better luck next time."
Despite the hypnotic, non sequitur narration of astrophysicist Dr. Richard Berendzen, sci-fi sticklers will bristle at the logic behind Another Earth’s multiverse backdrop. Eventually a broken mirror theory is tabled, with the idea being that at the moment when each planet became aware of the other — that is, the moment before Rhoda’s crash — that their synchronicity was disrupted, and parallel lives began to move in different directions. The central story is one of alienation and atonement, and the complex bond that forms between the people on either side of a trauma. 21 Grams, Red Road, and the recent Rabbit Hole cover similar territory with a less metaphorically charged approach. The contextual risk Cahill takes to enhance the story is a big one, and he leans a little too heavily on atmosphere (aided in part by the otherworldly score by Brooklyn band Fall On Your Sword) to clear the logistical and — more seriously — emotional gaps in the film. And yet there are moments of real transcendence in Rhoda’s quest for a whole and better self — a talent rare enough on this Earth to warrant the trip.