“Within our lifetimes, we’ve marveled as biologists have managed to look at ever smaller and smaller things. And astronomers have looked further and further into the dark night sky, back in time and out in space. But maybe the most mysterious of all is neither the small nor the large: it’s us, up close.”
Another Earth has all the earmarks of a first feature film for director Mike Cahill. It’s also quite obvious that the director is far more comfortable in the documentary style of filmmaking. This movie is shot with the same kind of cinema verite style, and while it does follow the story of these two broken people, it is always told from an intimate point of view of a close chronicler who has somehow gained access to the drama as it is unfolding. There isn’t a sense that any of this is scripted. The dialog doesn’t contain any of the practiced lines or delivery that you would find in most dramas out of Hollywood. In fact, there isn’t anything “Hollywood” about the film. There lies its greatest strength and, perhaps its greatest weakness.
“Could we even recognize ourselves, and if we did, would we know ourselves? What would we say to ourselves? What would we learn from ourselves? What would we really like to see if we could stand outside ourselves and look at us?”
Rhoda Williams (Marling) is wasted and driving down a dark road when she is distracted by the arrival of a new “star” in the night sky. She smashes into another car that holds Professor John Burroughs (Mapother) and his wife and child. The accident kills his family and leaves him in a chronic state of depression. Both he and Rhoda survive the crash, but, in reality, lose their lives that day. She spends time in prison while he wastes away abandoning his music and career.
Several years go by and Rhoda is finally released from her prison, but Burroughs is still in his. She attempts to apologize but ends up pretending to be from a maid service and begins to clean his home, ripping up the checks he writes for her services. He is unaware of who she really is.
All of this personal drama occurs under the backdrop of a significant global event. Another planet has been on course toward Earth. It is the “star” that first distracts a drunken Rhoda that fateful night. Now four years later it has gotten close enough to see clearly that it is a mirror of our own planet. The land masses are identical, and it is soon discovered that there are also alternative versions of us on that planet. As it arrives close enough to visit, Rhoda enters a contest to become one of the passengers. Would another her give her the chance to start over?
“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.”
The title is a bit misleading. Yes, there is the dominant presence of this alternative Earth, but the story is never really about that. It serves very little of the actual story, and you will be terribly disappointed if you are hoping to explore that world at all in the film. The end delivers just a hint of what if, but the planet is never really brought into focus at all. Instead, it always stands at an arm’s distance, providing some kind of metaphysical promise or answer that never quite reaches our grasp. It’s all what Cahill intends. He wants you to think about it far more than actually experience it. It’s a noble idea that doesn’t completely work for me. If the real drama is the life of these broken people, there is a ton of value there, but then the alternate Earth stands more as a distraction to whatever Cahill is really trying to say. If we’re supposed to be thinking philosophically about the planet as our main focus, then he makes that impossible with his compelling personal drama. It’s a film worth exploring, but he doesn’t really satisfy both needs adequately.
The acting of William Mapother and Brit Marling make the film what it is. They immerse themselves not so much into their characters, but the funk that defines their characters. They are indeed broken people, and the performances ooze this despair to the point of bringing you down a bit. The set design is simple and Cahill doesn’t let anything in the environment distract from the story he’s telling here. At least he knows enough to stay out of the way whenever possible. This isn’t an effects , and I’m not sure I would even call it science fiction. There is a bit of the shaky camera work that you might expect from Cahill’s background and style here, but it’s not so bad that you’ll suffer because of it. You’ll be drawn into the performances enough that all of the other “trappings” disappear into the story.
Another Earth is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 35 mbps. I’m not really sure if this is intended or a problem with the transfer or even a production issue with my disc. There are moments where the film has intolerable focus issues. Otherwise, the high-definition image presentation is average or better. The image is intentionally muted. Detail is also not going to be your friend. Cahill attempts to remove these things and obviously doesn’t want to distract you from the drama. Detail is best on the intimate close-ups. Colors never really look very realistic. Black levels are average.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is as subdued as everything else on the film. It’s a quiet film, for the most part. The opening theme music is a notable exception. It might be the most annoying measures of score I’ve ever heard. If it was his intention to put me on edge at the start, he succeeded. You can hear the hushed dialog just fine.
Music Video: (3:19) Fall On Your Sword’s The First Time I Saw Jupiter.
Deleted Scenes: (9:20) There are 7 with a play-all option.
The Science Behind Another Earth: (2:39) An interview with Cahill and Marling.
Creating Another Earth: (2:29) Cahill and Marling once again.
Fox Movie Channel Presents: Direct Effect – Mike Cahill (4:17) and In Character With William Mapother.
I wonder if it’s possible that Cahill is telling us that this is the alternative Earth and that we’re the ones approaching. There’s not really anything in the story that makes me suspect that line. It’s really in the way the film is shot. It always appears that something just isn’t quite right with colors and textures. I’d be very interested to find out if I’m right. “And therein lies the opportunity and the mystery.”