Film Review: Another Earth

In a remarkably assured debut, Mike Cahill and Brit Marling, his star and co-writer, churn a mesmerizing tale of redemption through a sci-fi premise about a twin planet.

No need to be a sci-fi junkie to be captivated by the stunning Another Earth. Drawing on the familiar trope of life in outer space, first-time director Mike Cahill is equally if not more interested in venturing inward to explore issues of the human psyche. The discovery of a second planet duplicating ours is enlisted to mount a “what-if” investigation of penance, redemption, and the possibility of a second chance to make a terrible act come right. Though shot on video on a modest budget, the film's provocative premise, organic shape and artful execution make it a stellar event among summer's lumbering tentpoles.

Another Earth’s origin story is as unexpected as its surprise breakout at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Cahill, who co-wrote, directed, produced and edited the film, previously made wildlife docs for National Geographic. Star and co-writer Brit Marling—a brainy beauty with camera-ready features—graduated from Georgetown with honors in economics and interned at Goldman Sachs before making the leap to filmmaking.

The exciting, pounding beat of electro-rock band Fall on Your Sword plays over the racing, scrambled order of the prelude: Young Rhoda Williams (Marling), a science devotee since viewing the Voyager shots of Jupiter, has just been accepted into MIT's astrophysics program. She parties, flings around her babelicious golden hair, drinks. As she drives homeward in her car, the radio announces the mind-blowing discovery of a planetary neighbor that's emerged from behind the sun. Rhoda peers out the window to view the ghostly globe—and totals a second car, instantly killing a woman and child and leaving the husband in a coma.

All this hurtles by in a matter of minutes, and the way Cahill handles the abbreviated sequence instantly announces a way-cool filmmaker adept at narrative compression. Emerging four years later from the pen, Rhoda remains too traumatized and guilt-ridden to do anything but work in maintenance at her former high school. Writers Cahill and Marling lay out a lacerating dilemma: After inflicting irreparable harm, if only by accident, how to go on living?

Following a botched attempt at suicide—also conveyed with a lightning touch—Rhoda enters an essay “contest” that awards a ticket on the first space journey to the new planet. It turns out that Earth #2, an eerie marbled globe that expands throughout the film, is a mirror image of ours. A scientist who “interviews” a Second Earth inhabitant hears a playback of herself, suggesting a parallel reality floating up there. Credit Cahill's firm hold on the viewer with making the faux science—including the second planet's impossible proximity and some laughable mumbo-jumbo about “synchronicity”—feel semi-plausible, at least during the film's duration.

Rhoda tracks down the driver of the car, a composer and professor of music at Yale (William Mapother), who has wakened from a four-year coma and vegetates, a broken man, in a derelict farmhouse. Posing as a maid from a cleaning service, Rhoda infiltrates his life, presumably driven by a need to win absolution. After she finally reveals her true identity, the film pivots to uncork a double denouement that both surprises and satisfies.

Another Earth’s plot suggests the recent Rabbit Hole (another fatal accident and sympathetic perp), and exploits to ingenious effect physicist Brian Greene's rather thrilling theory of multiple universes. At times, the film dips dangerously close to silliness—comas and withheld identities in movies are generally a cheesiness alert, along with romance between a perp and her victim. Yet Another Earth keeps the story aloft through Marling's haunted, mesmerizing presence, a grey-blue color scheme suggesting her world is plunged in perpetual twilight, and the spot-on electro sound design. Mapother, best known as a villain in ABC's “Lost,” brings a gruff power to his portrayal of a man in want of healing. All efforts to uglify Marling, who mostly wears a hoodie and sweat pants, are to no avail. Her silken, gold-flecked hair deserves a movie all its own. But though she comes across as whip-smart as her character, an incongruous airhead lilt in her line readings suggests the need for a diction coach.

“On the other Earth there's another you; you're up there and I'm up there,” someone says in the film. Which suggests not only company in the expanding cosmos, but maybe a shot at alternative destinies. The inspired, ingenious way Cahill and Marling have woven a fable around such staples of human yearning makes for a smashing debut. Welcome a richly gifted pair who bear watching.