It’s a metaphor thing
This tale of a planet Earth is self-important but compelling enough to just get by, writes Donald Clarke
WHEN MIKE CAHILL first dreamt up the idea for this tonally unsure, somewhat po-faced film, he must have figured that the eventual artefact would look unlike anything else in the multiplex.
Another Earth does what the title suggests. It begins with the detection of another planet in a relatively adjacent sector of the universe. It transpires that the celestial body appears to be an exact copy of dear old Earth. For most of the film, the planet, Metaphor, equipped with its own attendant moon, hangs mordantly over the horizon.
Cahill was not to know that Lars Von Trier was planning the thematically similar, though infinitely more elegant, Melancholia. He may also have been unaware that, some 40 years ago, Gerry Anderson conceived a film about a Doppelgänger planet called Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, which actually worked harder at exploring the dynamics of its fantastic thesis.
Though Another Earth is presented as sci-fi, most of its energies are devoted to working through the uncomfortable relationship between two damaged people. Rhoda (Brit Marling) finds her life unravelling when she is involved in a drink-fuelled traffic accident. Glancing up to the heavens, she slams her car into that of John (William Mapother), a stolid, philosophical musician. He survives, but his wife and son are killed.
Four years later, Rhoda emerges from prison. Laid low by guilt, she feels unable to resume her old life and takes a job cleaning at her former high school. Eventually, Rhoda works up the courage to apologise to John, but, when he answers the door, she panics and pretends that she has been sent from a cleaning agency. Soon, as creeping unease settles over the film, an uncomfortable romantic relationship begins to germinate.
Meanwhile, Rhoda has entered a contest to win a place on a manned mission to (you’d surely forgotten about this) the twin planet that has been hanging about all this while. But the scientists have a theory. Perhaps, when the two bodies became visible to one another, their histories diverged. Since this happened before the crash, John’s wife and son might still be alive on the Doppelgänger Earth. Got that?
In truth, the two strands of the picture don’t quite mesh together. Marling and Mapother (best known as the sinister Ethan in Lost) conspire to deliver impressive twin representations of deadened grief. Some improvisation appears to have taken place and – acting out the romance in grey light – the actors establish an impressive, wholly believable emotional connection.
The situation is, perhaps, somewhat contrived. But Rhoda’s simmering secret adds palpable tension to every scene.
Sadly, the uncomfortable, halfbaked sequences involving the extraterrestrial phenomenon appear culled from a very different, much less assured film. When a scientist makes contact and appears to speak to a version of herself, we appear to be drifting towards speculative surrealism. The philosophical musings from a wise Indian (Kumar Pallana) would sit comfortably in one of Oliver Stone’s stupider films. The metaphorical resonances of the celestial oddity are never lucid enough to justify its looming presence.
Still, despite all the cinematic resonances mentioned above, Another Earth is interesting enough to justify serious consideration. It may not be as much of a one-off as it thinks itself. Given the film’s concerns, that is, however, a strangely appropriate state of affairs.
Planet twofer: Brit Marling ponders the mysteries of the cosmos