Without a doubt, more independent moviemakers should try their hands at genres like science fiction, genres that have been largely consigned to the big-studio thrill factory. Low-budget movies can take chances, making use of the clichés that define genres in order to show something new. A case in point: Mike Cahill’s Another Earth has the trippy audacity to invent a new planet that appears to be an exact duplicate of our earth, appearing in the distant sky one night, but it also envelopes this idea in a very indie-movie story of grief, secrets and guilt.
All of that comes courtesy of Rhoda (Brit Marling, who co-wrote the script with Cahill) who, as a teenager just accepted to MIT, got into a drunken car wreck on the night the second earth was discovered. The accident killed a child and his pregnant mother, and Rhoda went to prison instead of college. Four years later, Rhoda is released, and tries to pick up the pieces of her life. The second earth still looms in the background, and news broadcasts and commentators try to make sense of the new planet with theories and communication experiments.
This is the sort of scenario at which indie sci-fi excels. Another Earth doesn’t assume that Earth 2—as the inhabitants of Original Earth refer to it (though it’s unlikely, as one character points out, that the people of Earth 2 think of the place this way)—presents some kind of direct hostility, a new menace from the sky. The planet does seem to be creeping closer to ours. We hear about a contest to send a civilian on a shuttle mission to explore Earth 2, and Rhoda enters, yearning to escape her life.
In the meantime, she gets an unlikely position as a janitor at her old high school, and attempts to confront John Burroughs (William Mapother), the only other survivor of her crash. Frozen at his door, finding him a bleary mess, she lies, passes herself off as a cleaning woman, and begins cleaning his house, which has fallen into disrepair. An odd friendship develops between these two lonely people, as tends to happen in earnest grief-centric indie movies.
You might, at this point, wonder what exactly any of this has to do with Earth 2, and it’s a fair question. The film’s attempt to ground the sci-fi in everyday life is admirable, and well-acted by Mapother (best known as the scary Ethan from Lost, the one who wasn’t on the manifest) and newcomer Marling, but long stretches of the movie ignore its unusual mix of ideas in favor of generic conventions and visual fussiness.
Cahill composes some nice shots, but he pushes his digital camera in close for too many faux-evocative extreme close-ups, then pulls back to milk a striking recurring shot of the second earth looming in the blue sky like he’s mounting an ad campaign. This attention to the lo-fi visuals comes at the expense of other forms of observation, like writing that evokes the real world. Beyond John and Rhoda, no one else in the movie registers as a character, and many of them speak with a kind of stilted amateurishness; they feel like extras filling up the background behind the protagonists, and even they’re defined primarily by a single dimension, their sadness.
Despite these limitations, Another Earth poses some intriguing questions about parallel and intersecting lives, particularly in its final minutes. Cahill and Marling strive to bring a restrained human melancholy rarely attempted in American science fiction films. It’s too bad that they tend to wallow when left unchecked. If Shane Carruth’s Primer (2004) sits at one extreme, made with such detached, detail-oriented braininess that it’s hard to follow its characters, Another Earth hovers closer to the opposite end of the spectrum, so concerned with the emotional lives of a few people that it sometimes loses track of the genre’s metaphorical potential.