Saturday, July 20, 2013

Another Earth

d. Mike Cahill, 2011 - Netflix

If I were to be perfectly honest about my favourite kind of movie, it might be discovery documentaries (the sort that reveal a world, or a personality, or environment I wasn't previously too familiar with) but would probably low-budget, dramatic science fiction.  Oh, I do love blockbusters and big budget action and askew comedies, those are the films I obsess over and watch again and again.  But it's stories like Another Earth that resonate far more within me, that are far more enriching, as they tend to explore the human experience of fantastical situations rather than just visually bringing a fantasy to life.  It's just that films of this sort, ones that are emotionally complex, are a lot harder to revisit, but seed enough conceptual elements that stimulate a whole different geek sector of the brain, rathe than just the empathetic, emotional ones.

Another Earth follows the story of Rhoda Williams (in a wonderfully understated performance from Brit Marling), a once promising MIT student who faces life after parole, having emerged from multiple years in jail after killing a woman and her child while driving drunk.  The night of the accident, and the cause of Rhoda's distraction, was the sudden appearance in the night sky of another Earth.  As Rhoda readjusts to civilian life, living with her parents, working as a janitor at her old high school and otherwise keeping to herself, her guilt overwhelms her frequently.  She decides she needs to face the man whose family she killed, and finds John Burroughs suffering physically and mentally from the aftereffects of the accident.  His home is in shambles, and his pain evident on his face, not just from the many pills he takes.

On his doorstep, Rhoda can't face her guilt, and standing in her janitorial coveralls, lies to John, offering him a free cleaning consultation.  This small lie brings Rhoda into John's life as his house cleaner, and naturally the chemistry between these two lonely people is close to unbearably awkward, but writer/director Mark Cahill never takes it to unwatchable extremes and constantly finds the humanity in the situation.  But, this isn't a feel-good romance/redemption story.  Though Rhoda never outright lies to John, her withholding the truth is just as severe.  It's a fascinating journey, as Rhoda brings John back to life and vitality, a small consolation for having destroyed it years before.  The emotions of her relationship with John are never anything less than complex, and in Marling's performance, Rhoda is never not aware of the damning truth.

In the background to all this is the other Earth, another place where, perhaps things were different.  There's a discovery of this other planet through excerpts of television news specials or radio reports  (some of the most naturalistic news coverage I've seen in a film) that gives a slow trickle of information about what it may be and the possibilities it contains, but at the same time, there's little true knowledge gleaned about it.  This sets up Rhoda's B-story, that of the contest, set up by an eccentric, Richard Branson-esque billionaire, to be the only civilian member of a privately-funded journey to the other Earth, which, obviously (yet believably) Rhoda wins.  The contest provides Rhoda the option of escape, of leaving her tortured existence behind, but it also gives her the ability to retain a little distance John, giving her an excuse to engage him, to even love him, knowing that she will be leaving.

The physics of the other Earth are obviously impossible (as the pull on the planets' mutual gravity would be devastating and they wouldn't be able to share the same solar orbit either, certainly leading to drastic differences in climate and solar radiation) but the conceit exists not as a scientific exploration, but an emotional one.  In that regard it retains a believability that could otherwise sink the film.

The ending to Another Earth left me with a bounty of questions and a certainly level of both admiration and frustration.  It's one of those "what does that mean?" conclusions that has a half-dozen or more possible explanations.  From my own perspective, I think it would have been better served with a 2-minute (ish) news montage reporting from the ground the journey of the shuttle to the other Earth, while still leaving questions open and the ending ambiguous (just a little less ambiguous and slightly more enriching in exploring its conceit).  I'll detail my thoughts in the comments on how this could have played out, so as no spoilers up here.