Another Earth is a movie that overcomes many obstacles. For starters, the film had an abysmally small budget—about $150,000. The film’s director (Mike Cahill) and star (Brit Marling) called in favors to family and friends to make the film happen, enlisting a friendly police officer to arrange for a scene in traffic, using their parents’ homes for sets, and in order to film a scene in which Marling’s character emerges from four years in prison, Marling entered by posing as a yoga instructor. The film was shot on a Sony camcorder, and the only big-name star attached to it, William Mapother, supposedly worked for $100/day.
Beyond that, the story itself is a wonderfully implausible Sci-Fi drama. In the opening moments of the film we meet Marling’s Rhoda, a promising 17-year-old who’s partying after being accepted into MIT. She stumbles drunk to her car, and drives home listening to a radio report on the discovery of Earth 2, an apparently identical copy of our planet that until now has been invisible behind the sun.
But suspending disbelief has its rewards, and the story that unfolds against the backdrop of Earth’s twin is a beautifully written and marvelously acted story of heartbreak and tragedy. As Rhoda cranes her head to look for Earth 2 in the night sky, she careens across the lines of traffic and smashes into the car of John Burroughs (played by Mapother). The crash sends Burroughs into a coma, killing his pregnant wife and young son. Rhoda staggers through the aftermath of the wreck, and director Cahill makes us endure her agony as she discovers husband and wife in the smoking shell of a car, then a toy on the pavement, then the lifeless body of John’s son.
Four years later, Rhoda is released from prison, Burroughs has climbed out of his coma and into an alcohol- and depression-induced haze, and Earth 2 has begun to loom large in the sky both day and night. A contest is announced: “Win a Trip to Earth 2,” and Rhoda applies for a seat on the shuttle.
She gathers her courage to confront the victim of her crime, and takes a train ride to Burroughs’s home, but upon seeing him, she loses her nerve. Instead of confessing to the crime, she begins a ruse—she says she’s working for a cleaning company, there to offer a free cleaning of his house. This turns into a weekly appointment, and in yet another unlikely turn, they become romantically involved.
Along for the Journey
On paper, the story sounds fantastic and unbelievable, but in the film it’s easy to be taken along for the journey. Marling, it seems, is going to be an immense talent, and Mapother’s evolution through the course of the film is moving.
Rhoda’s guilt hangs over every frame of the story. Burroughs’s house is dark, musty, piled with trash and dust, and her ruse becomes an attempt to somehow bring light to his darkened world. When we meet him, John seems to spend most of his days consuming alcohol and prescription drugs. The music that once filled his life as a composer is piled over and shut away. In time, Rhoda throws the windows open, the rooms become more daylit, and their stiff, abrupt conversations become more lingering, more human, more engaged, she retreating from shame, he retreating from sorrow. Music returns to his life, and a glimmer of hope emerges as they embrace each other.
Yet there’s a looming presence. Just as Earth’s twin hangs heavy in the sky, looming closer and more brilliant each day, so does Rhoda’s silence and guilt.
Contact with Earth 2 reveals that isn’t merely a geological and astronomical twin. On this twin planet, we each have our identical counterpart. There’s another you—someone who has lived your exact life, made the same mistakes as you, shares your hopes, doubts, and dreams. What if you could talk to yourself? What would you say? “Better luck next time,” Rhoda says.
The film pivots upon a quote from Richard Berendzen (a real-life professor at American University and author of Pulp Physics):
In the grand history of the cosmos, more than thirteen thousand million years old, our Earth is replicated elsewhere. But maybe there is another way of seeing this world. If any small variation arises—they look this way, you look that way—suddenly maybe everything changes and now you begin to wonder, what else is different? Well, one might say that you have an exact mirror image that is suddenly shattered and there’s a new reality. And therein lies the opportunity and the mystery. What else? What new? What now?
What if something was different on Earth 2. What if Rhoda hadn’t made her fatal mistake? What if there was something she could do?
In the end, Another Earth is a movie about the burdens of guilt, the pain of loss, and hope for redemption and second chances. It’s almost fairytale-like in its willingness to challenge our natural tendency towards disbelief, and it rewards that stretch with the on-screen chemistry between Marling and Mapother. It’s beautiful to watch in a lo-fi sort of way, and the ending (which I won’t spoil) is one that could tie up many evenings of conversation. I have my theories . . . but I’ll keep them to myself.
Behind it all is the irrepressible human desire for forgiveness. Another Earth tells us that there is always a possibility of redemption, even if it comes from the most implausible directions. No matter how bleak our circumstances, no matter how horrible our crime, though all our options for forgiveness have apparently dried up, we can dream that a new earth might appear in the cosmos. And that might just give us hope.