Science fiction is a genre that allows for a lot of interesting latitude in storytelling. Physics and reality can be bent or broken in the name of interesting visual motifs and set pieces. Social and cultural issues can be adapted into easily digestible allegories. Likewise, internal conflicts and philosophical paradoxes can suddenly become tangible reality.
These aspects make science fiction one of the most fertile and interesting genres to explore, but sometimes the scope and spectacle of a science fiction film can gut the emotional core of the narrative. A world-changing event tends to make human stories appear small or inconsequential in the wake of more expansive and pressing concerns. Films that tackle the kinds of events that make memorable science fiction often don’t even try to focus on human stories that do not serve as opportunities to advance the larger narrative forward.
As such, it was a great, exhilarating shock to discover that you, Another Earth, are the kind of film for which science fiction has recently been thirsting for. You tell a simple, beautiful and human story with grace and economy, yet do so using components and story aspects that could not be explored in a reality-based film. You take a high minded and fantastical idea – that of a second, parallel earth being discovered- and use it a means to explore a character and an idea. Most other films would allow spectacle to choke and consume the human heart of their story. Not you, though.
You tell the story of Rhoda Williams, a high school senior who is on the cusp of a brilliant future. When we first meet her, she has been accepted to her dream college, and is in the middle of a house party, surrounded by friends, energy, and opportunity. Driving home she hears a radio report about the discovery of a new planet, one that could support life. While trying to spy this planet in the night sky, she runs into another vehicle, killing the wife and son of a local composer, John Burroughs, and sending him into a multi-year coma. After serving her four-year prison sentence, she reenters society a shell of her former self. A botched attempt at confronting and confessing to the man whose family she killed results in her working as his maid, though this position brings her no closer to coming clean with him or being able to forgive herself. Even the shared human drama of Earth 2’s discovery is completely lost on her until it is revealed that this second world is populated with doppelgangers of our own selves.
From there your story becomes an exploration of guilt and the path and cost of redemption. The internal self-loathing and doubt that Rhoda felt following her accident is suddenly externalized, and the possibility of meeting her own self allows her to shake herself from the torpor she had earlier felt. Slowly she opens up to John, becoming his friend, and as their relationship deepens she finds it harder to confess to him and more imperative that she win a spot on board a ship that will travel to Earth 2.
There are so many aspects of your character that strike seemingly impossible balances that it is hard to enumerate them. Of course there is the contrast of science fiction and human drama, which you accomplish with aplomb. Rhoda’s story of forgiveness and redemption is never sacrificed to make way for pandering or empty spectacle.
At the same time, the acting of both Brit Marling and William Mapother in the roles of Rhoda and John is flawless, real, and affecting, adding an intangible and ethereal dimension to an already potent story. Marling – who co-wrote your script with director Mike Cahill – is hypnotic and touching as a woman devoid of hope for ever atoning for her sins. A climactic moment in which she tells a story is notable especially for highlighting her talents as an actress capable of understanding and inhabiting a complex and rich character, and as a writer capable of understanding the subtle importance of narrative point of view. Mapother, meanwhile, blends potency and hopelessness in his portrayal of a man whose emotional wounds have kept him stagnant long after his physical wounds have healed. The talent and chemistry between these two as actors is undeniable, and the shift from tense, silent coexistence to heartfelt codependency is at once uplifting and heartbreaking.
Then there is the subtly and effectiveness of your direction. At the outset you have a rapid fire pace of music and editing that perfectly reflects the promise and forward motion of Rhoda’s life. Following her accident, though, everything becomes cold, empty, and distant. The camera views her from afar, the colors drain from the palette and the music takes on a funereal tone. As she slowly comes back to life, though, so does your tone. The music lightens, and the camera regains its intimacy with small, gorgeously detailed shots cluing us into the beauty hidden before us in the world.
All of these directorial reflections of story elements may seem obvious when recounted on paper, but it is a rare film that executes these mirroring devices with such nuance and effectiveness. Brass tacks storytelling has slowly vanished from many mainstream films, yet you make it look so effortless that one wonders why this should be so. Your director, writers, and actors all coalesce to create a cerebral experience of emotional and intellectual truth that closes on a moment of utter, breathless perfection.
I struggle to truly, comprehensively explain the fullness and depth of your power. In a great film all of the aspects one thinks of as being the building blocks of cinema – writing, acting, directing, cinematography, editing, score – become indistinguishable from one another, so seamless is the craftsmanship. As such, let me close by saying that anyone who appreciates expert storytelling, intelligent writing, powerful acting, and meaningful cinema in general should seek you out with the utmost persistence.
Brian J. Roan