Beautifully shot on a tiny budget by former documentary maker and debut feature director Mike Cahill, Another Earth brings with it a similar style and meditative atmosphere that Gareth Edwards brought to last year’s Monsters. And like Monsters, Another Earth introduces a great sci-fi concept that serves as a tantalising backdrop rather than a central premise.
It asks what would happen if an identical copy of Earth, populated by our exact doubles, were to suddenly float into our solar system. It’s a great idea, but one only lightly explored in Another Earth’s 90-minute duration. Instead, Cahill’s film concerns itself with the life of a young girl, Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling, who also co-wrote) who, at the outset, is an intelligent yet reckless 17-year-old.
Leaving a party drunk and possibly high one night, her car collides with that of composer John Burroughs (William Mapother), killing his pregnant wife and son instantly. Four years later, Rhoda emerges from jail, wracked with guilt and her dreams of becoming an astrophysicist left far behind. In her absence, a duplicate of Earth has appeared, and now hangs ominously in the sky.
As Rhoda gradually makes what she can of her life, taking up a job as a cleaner at her old high school, scientists on TV speculate about the inhabitants of what they unimaginatively dub Earth 2. Are their lives mirror images of ours, or have their paths subtly diverged?
In one of the film’s most electrifying moments, a scientist from SETI contacts the other Earth, and holds an eerie conversation with her doppelganger.
Elsewhere, a space tourism company holds a competition. The prize: a seat on the first plane to Earth 2. Rhoda, sullen and lonely, enters, hoping that a trip to the other planet will provide the answers she’s looking for. But then a chance encounter with the widowed composer leads her towards an unlikely relationship that could change everything.
Although shot on a tiny budget, Cahill’s crafted a striking looking film. It lacks the intricate effects shots of Monsters, but it’s full of similarly poignant and beautifully-judged moments of delicate drama. Rhoda’s blossoming relationship with John is expertly handled, and both actors turn in the subtle, intimate sort of performances a little film like this requires.
Mapother’s turn as John, in particular, is superb, since it’s his character who’s given the most transformative arc; when Rhoda first meets him, he’s an emotionally shattered husk in a woollen hat, and barely able to look after himself. Gradually, however, his relationship with Rhoda sees a happier man emerge from the wreckage.
There are long moments where characters simply sit and contemplate, or go for long walks across quiet, desolate vistas. It’s the sort of thing that will inevitably alienate some, but Cahill directs with grace and subtlety – Another Earth is like a visual poem, serving as both a character study and an atmospheric mood piece. It’s a little like a low-budget Tree Of Life – and depending on your view of Terence Malick’s latest film, that’ll either serve as an attractive notion or a flashing warning beacon.
There may be long stretches where little happens, but there are light touches here and there, tiny dramatic flourishes, that could only come from an intelligent group of filmmakers: Rhoda’s parable about a Russian cosmonaut, or a subtly played moment where John and Rhoda stare up at Earth 2 through a telescope. It’s certainly the first film I’ve seen where the two leads bond over a game of Wii Sports.
It could be argued, in fact, that Another Earth is a little too subtle. Throughout the film, Earth 2 hangs in the air like a silent enigma, and there’s so much more scope to the premise that is left unexplored – either due to budgetary constraints, or simply because Cahill wanted to tell a different kind of story.
When the final credits rolled, I initially felt a little nonplussed. But later, as I ran down the length of Oxford Street to catch a tube train home, I briefly caught sight of the Moon hanging in the sky. It was large and grey and full, and for just a moment, a bit of my brain wondered whether I was looking at Earth’s twin. It was then that I realised just how much of Another Earth’s sombre tone had seeped into my subconscious.
It’s not often that I leave a film desperately wanting to see a sequel, but in the case of Another Earth, I was left hoping that Cahill and Marling will revisit the premise they’ve created, which is rich with possibility. In the film’s production notes, it says that he has ideas for two other features: one about reincarnation, and the other about a fashion designer who lives under the sea.
Another Earth isn’t without flaw, but it’s a fascinating debut, and whatever Cahill directs next – whether it’s about people who think they’re a reborn Napoleon, or a fashionista in a diving bell – I’ll be near the front of the line to see it.