Like an ominous orb or omniscient object, a fresh planet can be seen dominating the sky, boldly, beautifully, in nearly every exterior shot of the grandly intelligent indie drama Another Earth. It is the second Earth of the title and its presence is never explained. It simply arrived one day and our Earth's citizens have been wondering what it's doing up there for the past four years. It's a mystery, an eerie, eccentric enigma that lays the foundation for a truly gripping science fiction concept. And it's only the catalyst for something much larger at work in this profoundly plotted narrative that touches upon such weighty themes as forgiveness and redemption.
Co-writers Mike Cahill (doubling as director) and Brit Marling focus their story on tortured soul Rhoda (Marling, apparently as sharp an actor as she is a writer), who ruined her life and that of another family when she drove drunk and smashed into another vehicle. That was around the same time that the other Earth showed up, a paralleling detail that connects these two events in an embrace of the epic and the intimate. Years later, Rhoda is trying to pick up the shattered pieces of her life, but she can't shake the guilt and she finds that her only way of coping with the pain is to punish herself.
She chooses a job that allows her to suppress her talents and she finds herself slipping further into a pit of despair from which there cannot possibly be any return. Or can there? All the while, Rhoda stares into the sky and wonders what exactly is going on up there on Earth 2. Scientists theorize that the planet operates like a mirror and that the inhabitants up there are actually reflections of ourselves. Or perhaps they are our doppelgangers, identical but separate. These notions open Rhoda's mind to the possibilities. Is there a version of her out there who didn't commit such an atrocity? Can she escape her past by reliving it? Is there hope for her yet?
It's a spellbinding situation that successfully combines the sci-fi concept with Rhoda's dramatic character arc. The science excites, while the fiction fascinates. As Rhoda begins to latch on to some sense of distant hope, Another Earth finds new ways to explore Rhoda's obsession with running from her past. Imaginative insight illuminates Rhoda's seemingly inescapable need to avoid the pain by dreaming of some magical reset button that will erase her troubles. At the same time, she attempts to make amends with the lone survivor of the wreck she caused by befriending heartbroken John (William Mapother, delivering a dark portrait of grief).
But even then, Rhoda can't quite own up to her mistakes. It is here that Another Earth expands the emotional reach of the conflict and adds additional layers of meaning to the theme of avoidance. As hard as Rhoda tries to outrun her past, she never seems to get too far ahead. It keeps threatening to catch up, breathing down her neck and forcing her to feel the fear of a world that may not be ready to forgive her. Rhoda is languishing in a very harrowing place and Marling makes us feel every pang of rigorous regret and every sting of personal punishment.
The stunning science fiction concept that hangs over Another Earth provides ample opportunities for Cahill and Marling to dissect the main themes and then use them, impressively and effectively, to communicate the depth of Rhoda's internal conflict. The narrative is consistently strengthened by the carefully thematic employment of symbolism, which transforms even an innocent video game session into a compassionate commentary on subtextual violence.
The introduction of Earth 2 provides the narrative with a lot of avenues to explore and numerous questions to pose. This unique conceit provides room for Cahill and Marling to weave the main themes through Rhoda's journey in a manner that doesn't feel heavy-handed or overbearing. There are many great moments throughout Another Earth and the movie's insistence on staying with Rhoda the whole time ensures that these great moments rely heavily on her arc and on Marling's performance.
Any weaknesses on display here are quite minor. The genre-melding musical score is a bit obnoxious at times, striving for too eclectic an electronic beat or too sentimental a piano note. And perhaps the movie stumbles from scene to scene on rare occasions. But even these complaints are very small, as the music remains a welcome identifier of the movie's indie identity and the editing is very successful overall.
Rhoda's story takes us to some emotionally potent spots that are forever tied to the existence of Earth 2. And what is perhaps most impressive about Another Earth is how that connection between Rhoda and the new planet remains tightly linked all the way until the end. In a pitch-perfect conclusion, these two narrative elements collide with exquisite precision. The ending brings Rhoda's arc to a close at just the right point where the themes come full circle and yet the questions still remain. I couldn't ask for a more satisfying end to this story.
If you could meet yourself, what would you say? If you could relive your past, what would you do? The stunning, startling sight of Earth 2 in the sky inspires so many questions, but Another Earth isn't really about the answers so much as it is about the journey one must embark on to find them. Cahill and Marling strike a dire tone early on and don't shy away from the darkness that is brewing at the narrative's core. But they also aren't afraid to seek hope in the midst of such horror and they locate a rather astonishing path to get their story to the point where optimism is attainable. This marriage of sensational sci-fi concept and moving character study is so impressive it's almost otherworldly. But even with such an alien conceit nestled in the narrative, this movie is always so endearingly human. Is it too late for Rhoda? Or is redemption still within her grasp? All it takes is a trip to Another Earth to find out.