ANOTHER EARTH (2011) (***1/2)
Here is a unique use of sci-fi. For the most part this film is a drama regarding recovering from a tragic event that fundamentally transforms one's life over night. The concept of a doppelganger planet is used as metaphor for how decisions we make create new lives and even selves.
Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling, upcoming THE COMPANY YOU KEEP) is a high school student who has just gotten into MIT. After a night of drinking, she makes the mistake of driving home and along the way hits another car putting college professor John Burroughs (William Mapother, TV's LOST) into a coma and killing his pregnant wife and young son. In an instant, she transforms from a promising future astrophysicist into a convict who must serve four years in prison.
By the time Rhoda gets out, humans are planning a trip to Earth 2. With seemingly no prospects, she decides to enter an assay contest to win a seat on the space ship set for the approaching planet. Meanwhile, she gets a job at the high school as a janitor; she tells her counselor that she wants a job where she doesn't have to talk to people. Consumed with guilt, she seeks out John to apologize, but when she knocks on his door, she panics, and in seeing the disarray his house is in, says she is from a maid service giving out a free trial. She doesn't know what to do when he hires her.
As they get to know each other, we see the lives they lost, but also see an alternative to the miserable lives they have now. They discuss the nature of their doppelgängers on Earth 2. Are they exactly the same or did they make other choices? Does it all come down to perspective? I mean the people on the approaching planet aren't calling themselves Earth 2 one would suppose. To them they are simply Earth. If the number of universes is infinite then mathematically anything is possible.
Director Mike Cahill, who wrote the script with Marling, creates a rich drama and then uses the sci-fi as a hook to talk about deeper emotional ramifications. It's ingenious. When dealing with his two main characters or the sci-fi elements, he never get pretentious. The droning Emo score gets a little heavy handed at times, but does set the right mood for the material. The only misstep comes with Rhoda's fellow janitor Purdeep (Kumar Pullana, THE ROYAL TENEBAUMS), whose philosophical grand gestures beat the viewer over the head with New Age metaphorical platitudes.
Marling isn't a name I knew before, but her performance makes it certain I won't forget. In the few scenes before the accident, she embodies promise and then afterward, she becomes a shell. With each scene with John, she becomes slightly more whole again. It's a layered and nuanced performance that even makes us question her sanity at times. Mapother matches her work, making John a man struggling to emerge from darkness where he has lived for years. Some days are better than others.
ANOTHER EARTH proves why plot and character need to be intertwined. Cahill and Marling find the emotional core to the idea of parallel universes. The idea was discussed in last year's wonderful RABBIT HOLE, which also dealt with picking up after extreme loss, but this film takes it further. It's nice to think that there is another version of ourselves living out what we perceive as our perfect life, but it's another thing entirely to seek out that person in ourselves on Earth.