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Another Earth

posted Aug 18, 2011, 12:14 AM by Vu Nguyen

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Another Earth

Another Earth

If you could meet yourself, what would you say?

Another Earth is a story about redemption. Sort of. Writer/director Mike Cahill steers his audience through an ethically muddled wormhole filled with more questions than answers. He posits the idea of a literal alternate universe populated by the same inhabitants of Earth; whether or not these “other Earthlings” are leading comparable lives is the Big Question.

Brit Marling, who co-wrote the script with Cahill, plays Rhoda Williams, a smart, pretty girl on the brink of great success. Having just been accepted to an astrophysics program at MIT, she indulges in one night of reckless teenage abandon, which results in a rather horrific consequence. The rest of the film follows Rhoda as she attempts to make amends for what she did, at the same time wondering how her life would be different had she made better choices. Of course, she’s fascinated by the concept of Earth II, and therein lies the film’s tour de force: Cahill uses a topical scientific theory as the basis for his heroine’s internal dilemma. It’s an interesting idea and on one level, Cahill succeeds. The characters have just the right amount of complexities and emotional damage without the burden of pity and self-aggrandizing resolve. Basically, they’re relatable, even if their specific predicaments are not.

The problem with Another Earth, however, is that it relies too heavily on artistic imagery and doesn’t spend enough time exploring the science behind the concept. Taking a page from the “Donnie Darko School of Meaningless Metaphors,” Cahill uses brilliant cinematography to substitute for less-than-brilliant writing. For example, the plot is riddled with scenes of Rhoda staring into the distance or walking in slow-motion while real-life astrophysicist Richard Berendzen provides voiceover commentary, in effect summarizing an entire realm of scholarly thought. A tad lazy, no? What happened to the first rule of storytelling: show don’t tell? More importantly, what exactly is the science behind the film? Cahill wants us to consider Earth II a plausible phenomenon, but even my high school physics education makes me question the substance of this theory. Good science fiction is rarely this ambitious without a concrete set of footnotes to back up its claims.

So Cahill’s characters drift, at times aimlessly, through his imagined-real landscape, one that feels as cold and empty as his plot devices*. It’s fitting, then, that the film’s scoreshares similar qualities. Composed and produced by Philip Mossman (LCD Soundsystem) and Will Bates under the moniker Fall On Your Sword, the soundtrack is a mix of electronic beats and haunting strings. While icy at times, the music accomplishes the film’s intended vision by infusing classic instrumentation with progressive studio engineering—innovation vs. organic artistry. “Rhoda’s Theme” is either the opening waltz at a rave in space or the instrumental track for an Olympic figure skating competition. “The Cosmonaut” uses only piano and violin but transitions seamlessly into “The Specialist,” a pulsating collage of sounds with something resembling a digital distress signal weaved throughout. Mossman and Bates seem highly calculated in their approach, intentionally speeding up and slowing down the musical tone. This matches the film’s emotional core—restless, waiting, uncertain. Even if the film leaves crater-sized holes in basic logic, Cahill can rest easy that his soundtrack, at least, manages to bridge the gap between two worlds.

Another Earth is now playing in limited release. For more information or to watch the trailer, visit its official Fox Searchlight website at The film has earned mixed reviews from top critics, but won the Alfred P. Sloan prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival where it premiered.

* Cahill’s token minority character is an elderly Indian man who mutilates himself in an attempt to shut out the world; predictably, he also fills the “grandpa” role: one who offers pointlessly cryptic words of wisdom indicative of a character’s personal growth.