I went into Another Earth with two overriding thoughts in my head from reviews I had seen and read: 1) it’s a good premise but it doesn’t really go anywhere, and 2) it has an amazing ending (one of the best endings of the year, apparently). This confused me, as there was no way the two statements could happily co-exist. One was right and the other was seriously loopy. I was quite intrigued to find out which it was.
Another Earth premiered at Sundance earlier this year (it seems like we have to wait almost a year before we see any of these films, doesn’t it? I’ll be previewing the next lot in a matter of weeks!) and won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for best science/technology feature (previous winners have included Primer and Grizzly Man). I loved the idea of it, and even more so for the less sci-fi approach (don’t start going into the physics of why astronomers have only JUST discovered an identical planet in the same solar system and why there has been no effect on tides or gravity – it will only spoil it for you. Brit Marling clearly comes from the same school of science as Lars Von Trier). Another Earth is not really about the other earth at all – it’s a human story of redemption; a girl trying to right her wrongs and seek forgiveness whilst this planet presides in the sky. Then the two storylines collide, and only then do you realise how integral the discovery is.
Rhoda (Brit Marling) is a brilliant young student destined for MIT when she drunkenly takes to her car after a party, and distracted by radio news reports of another earth being spotted in the sky – and looking out the window to see it for herself – ploughs into the stationary car of composer John (William Mopother – Ethan from Lost!) killing his wife and son and leaving him in a coma. She is arrested and given a jail sentence – her dreams are gone. Emerging three years later she is numb and reclusive. She moves like a ghost around her family, takes a solitary job where she won’t have to speak to people – cleaning – and walks out one night into the snow, and lies down naked on the frozen ground just so she can feel, and ends up in hospital. On the anniversary of the crash she visits the site where she killed the family, and notices someone else there – John, the man who survived. Plucking up the courage to visit his house so she can apologise for what happened, she loses her nerve and instead poses as his new cleaner. Over the next few months she continues to lie, trying to make his life better by sorting through the mess he’s let his house become. The two strike up a friendship – he has no idea who she is, and she is beginning to have feelings for him and doesn’t want to ruin their connection by telling him the truth. But then she wins a competition to visit Earth 2 – a competition she entered in the hope of escaping this world, meeting her double, and looking for answers. He begs her not to go, and taking a chance, she reveals who she really is in the hope he can forgive and accept her, and she can stay on this earth. But he doesn’t – how can he? – and she resolves to go Earth 2 – until by chance she hears a theory from a scientist on the TV and realises she must give up her own second chance for the man who deserves it more than her.
It was the point where she hears the theory on the TV that became the big turning point for me. In fact I was so sold on the idea they were going to end the film with the camera resting on her face that I wasn’t even paying attention to what the TV was saying. Had director Mike Cahill actually done that, then this film really would have had a good premise but gone nowhere with it. The theory was – and it remains a theory, and that’s what I love so much about this film, it’s all thought and wonder: the two Earths are identical, that being proven by the conversation with the NASA scientist and her ‘double’ live on a television stream previously: they have the same name, birthday and childhood memories. However, when the two Earths became aware of each other, that’s when the synchronicity stopped (because they are identical, Earth 2 must have become aware of Earth 1 at the precise moment Earth 1 became aware of it). This moment occurred just seconds before Rhoda crashed her car into John’s family – the distraction of it catalysed the crash in fact. But if the theory were true, then perhaps on Earth 2 Rhoda didn’t crash into the family? Perhaps they’re still alive and well, and going about their normal lives on the clone planet? Convinced this must be the case, Rhoda goes back to confront John – who doesn’t want anything to do with her – and leaves him her winning ticket to Earth 2.
Commence lots of bawling from me. This film was a marvel to me because it’s extraordinarily arty – of course being an indie film there’s lots of low-key but haunting music from unknown bands, minimal dialogue, lots of scenes which primarily focus on the environment that’s around Rhoda, who, now a stranger to human contact after being jailed for so long, is stirred by. There are more shots of the other earth in the sky than there is talk about it. But despite the scarcity of plot, the film never allows your mind to wander, to start thinking about where this is all heading. Therefore I had no idea she was going to give up her ticket until the moment she did it, and I have to admit it was pretty embarrassing. You wouldn’t want to have been sat next to me in the screen, I can tell ya. I haven’t sobbed so much in ages! It was the moment which elevated the film for me into magic.
BUT - and there is a but: when John accepts the ticket and takes her place on the space mission, questions began forming in my head. So, if the theory is true and perhaps synchronicity stopped and there was no car crash on Earth 2 and he can go and see his family who are alive – what about John 2? He’ll still be there as well. How will he be able to resume his place in his family when his double is there? Is the theory that on Earth 2 there was a car crash, but John died and his family survived, the reverse of the accident on Earth 1? Not exactly a plot hole, but it sobered me up, that’s for sure. Because we never go to Earth 2 in the film, we will always be wondering.
But it’s the final scene which kills the movie, and makes the second statement the correct one. It’s three months later and Rhoda is getting on with her life without John. She is returning home when she suddenly stops, turns away aghast, and then turns back again. Her double is standing in front of her. AH-MAY-‘ZIN’. At first I thought it was some kop out where the inhabitants of each earth now move about freely between each planet and it didn’t make much sense, but then you think about the time scale and you realise – just as Earth 1 had a competition to visit the other earth, so did Earth 2. And just as Rhoda won the competition on Earth 1, she also won it on Earth 2, except, of course, Rhoda 2 didn’t have the car crash, didn’t kill the family, and so she has no need to give her ticket away. She has travelled to Earth 1 to meet her double, the Rhoda we have followed through the film. It’s such a glorious moment, especially as the film just ends there, leaving you with the swelling lump in your throat.
It’s a beautiful film – delicate and fascinating in the first three quarters, and stunningly brilliant in the last 15 or so minutes. The two lead actors play off each other, so perfectly damaged – reluctant and uneasy at first, but then growing familiar with one another. I loved Rhoda’s language as well – that may seem a strange thing to say, but I loved how she told ‘stories’ to John, to make a point. It just made her so much more memorable. Brit Marling and Mike Cahill are clearly a double act to watch out for the in the future (Marling also made her name for herself at Sundance with separate feature Sound of My Voice where she played the leader of a cult, and she has lots of other projects in the pipeline, including next penned thriller The East).
Another Earth is not completely a masterpiece, but definitely something to spread the word about. I can’t wait for the DVD so I can showcase it to friends alike!