I am always excited when I come across a film that is strengthened through its incorporation of science-fiction subject matter. Certainly the conflicts alone played out amongst the characters in Another Earth are heavy enough to carry the story, but director Mike Cahill’s decision to weave in an unsettling sci-fi element makes every line delivered more desperate, and every shot more beautiful. Perhaps just as beautiful is how the plot unfolds. Spoilers ahead…
After being accepted into MIT’s astrophysics program, Rhoda Williams (Marling) may have a bright future to look forward to, but it is one that vanishes in the blink of an eye. A night of reckless celebration leaves her judgement impaired, and the next thing she knows she is driving absentmindedly through the New England night. Distracted by a bright blue star in the sky, she mistakenly swerves into oncoming traffic, kills a wife and child, and leaves a husband in a choma.
Jump to 4 years later, when Rhoda is released from prison and must attempt to begin living a normal life with her family. But she can’t shake the regret. Flashbacks of the accident haunt her and the sadness is overwhelming. No longer a blue dot in the sky, Earth 2 is large and fully visible on the horizon, with scientists proclaiming that it is an exact replica of the planet, complete with “another you.”
In an attempt to find solace (and perhaps better lighting) she moves into her attic with only a mattress and a poster of a nebula – an interstellar cloud of hydrogen gas and dust. Sunlight pours in from a dirty window. These are some of my favorite shots in the film. She enters an online contest with the hopes of winning a trip to Earth 2. In other words, a new life. In a parallel universe, is it possible that the accident never really took place?
The film takes a compelling turn when Rhoda decides to confront John Burroughs (William Mapother), the man who lost everything because of her mistake. Upon seeing him in the flesh, however, she simply cannot find the words to apologize, and instead pretends she is a cleaning lady offering a “free trial.” Clever.
Perhaps the most poignant transformation to witness in the film is not Rhoda’s, but John’s. Once a renowned composer, his house becomes a chaotic mess of all that he once was in the wake of his trauma. Dishes pile high to the ceiling and music drafts lay haphazardly atop photos of his wife and son. With Rhoda’s help, however, John’s house and life is slowly pieced back together.
Although the relationship that unfolds between the two appears a bit predictable, Rhoda’s ultimate decision to give John her ticket to Earth 2 is not. In a parallel continuum where the accident did not take place, there’s a chance John can be re-united with his family. When the film does come full circle, we are heartened by Rhoda’s act of altruism. Perhaps giving someone you’ve wronged a better future is far more redemptive than selfishly escaping a troubled past.