What would you say if you came face-to-face with yourself? “Better luck next time,” answers Rhoda Williams, played by Brit Marling, star and co-writer/co-producer of Another Earth.
Rhoda’s response makes sense when you learn her backstory: After a night of partying to celebrate her MIT acceptance, Rhoda—distracted by the discovery of a mirror Earth just made visible in the sky—causes a car crash that ultimately kills a pregnant woman and her son. After a four-year stint in prison, she searches for a way to apologize to John Burroughs (William Mapother), the lone survivor of the crash. When she loses her nerve, she creates the ruse that she’s from a maid service and begins to regularly clean his house, instead.
In the meantime, Earth Two gets closer and looms larger in the sky, and scientists start discovering how deep the parallels to Earth One run. People start to wonder if there are alternate-reality versions of themselves on the duplicate planet.
Basically, there are three main characters in Another Earth: Rhoda, John, and Earth Two. (Though, John astutely points out, Earth Two probably doesn’t refer to itself as such.) The movie begins with a violent collision between the three of them, and their stories are intertwined thereafter.
Though while the premise of the movie is quite fantastical, the interactions between the three main actors in Another Earth strive to be naturalistic. For the most part, this is to the movie’s credit. Too often characters in movies reveal too much of themselves to each other, or describe exactly how they’re feeling to each other. Another Earth never falls into this trap. John doesn’t come out and discuss his dead wife and child with Rhoda, and Rhoda doesn’t talk about her time in prison. Those experiences weigh heavily on them, but go unremarked upon. They exist in the background, like Earth Two.
Other times, though, it feels as if Another Earth somewhat squanders its best idea. Once the concept of Earth Two is introduced, the mind races with questions: How similar is it to Earth One? Is there a second version of me on the planet? If yes, is that person identical to me, or are there differences? If there are differences, who has the better life? Another Earth raises all of these questions without really exploring them. Instead, it spends all of its time on Earth One, detailing a story about grief, loss, and guilt—a story that’s not as original or intriguing as the double-Earth conceit.
Still, the relationship between Rhoda and John is quite affecting, in part because of the smart writing and editing, which jettisons everything except what’s crucial to the emotional crux of the story. But, echoing the story’s sparseness, Marling and Mapother give strong, introverted performances, doing more with facial expressions and body postures than with words. (The movie contains the most allegorical scene of Wii boxing ever put to film.) The result is a movie with a lot of ellipses, and lots of space for interpretation.
The extra materials on the Blu-Ray release prove that the filmmakers are content to everything rest unexplained. There isn’t a commentary track to delve into the extra backstory and scenes-between-scenes you can tell were figured out in filmmaker discussions but never make it to the movie. The closest you get is three five-minute clips from the Fox Movie Channel with Marling, Mapother, and director Mike Cahill separately. They give a little insight into the film, but not so much that you still can’t draw your own conclusions.
In addition, the Blu-Ray features include some deleted scenes, a music video, an extremely short conversation between Cahill and Marling, and an extra feature entitled “The Science Behind Another Earth” that contains very little science at all, if any. Rather than tell you more about Rhoda and John, these extras paint a picture of the DIY nature of the filmmaking. Cahill and a skeleton crew apparently shot in his mother’s house and at the school where his mother worked, using a camera bought with credit cards.
To his credit, you never feel that the movie’s budget is a hindrance to the story. It isn’t a narrative that calls out for splashy special-effects aliens or lengthy outer-space sequences. This is refreshing. More indie filmmakers should take the lead of directors like Cahill and Duncan Jones’s, and devise science-fiction stories that require more thought than CGI.