A sleeper hit at the most recent Sundance, Mike Cahill’s Another Earth aspires to be one of those ‘contemplate the cosmic wonder of existence while your life is turning to shit’ tough-love, there’s-good-in-everyone tearjerkers. Three or four of these pop up every year, and it’s a standard M.O. for a lot of (lesser) science fiction – things seem hopeless here on earth, but compared to the complexity of the cosmos, and our larger interconnectedness thereof, our little problems are meaningless. We just have to adjust our attitudes, and life in the face of adversity will be fulfilling again.
In ‘Another Earth,’ unfortunately, this involves a complete and utter disregard for taking personal responsibility for committing an avoidable tragedy, as well as a complete and utter disregard for basic science. It takes almost pathological levels of altruism to sympathize with our protagonist (who apparently must be redeemed at all costs) and a complete ignorance of elementary astronomy and metaphysics for its overarching metaphor (a mirror-version of Earth, inhabited by exactly the same people with exactly the same histories) to work. Reasonably bright eighth-grade composition students put more thought, homework and credibility into their stories than co-writers, co-producers and co-creators Brit Marling and Mike Cahill have put into theirs.
Marling plays Rhoda Williams, a high-school senior who is celebrating her acceptance into MIT with partying high-school friends. William Mapother is John Burroughs, a musician and composer on his way home with his pregnant wife and very young son. Then WHAM!! the family’s car is decimated by a drunk driver – the wife and child are killed, and Burroughs spends the next few years in a coma. The drunk driver? Rhoda.
Four years later, Rhoda emerges from prison, and is placed in a job that reflects how far she has irretrievably fallen – high school janitor. She looks up the accident from four years ago and learns that Burroughs still lives in the area. She wants to meet him and, apparently, apologize, for what it’s worth. But she loses her nerve when he appears at his door, and makes up a story that she’s offering to clean his house for a one-day free trial from a local cleaning company. He’s miserable, understandably, and his house, of course, reflects that. She starts cleaning, he likes the idea, and she starts regularly returning to clean while a fragile friendship forms.
Meanwhile, TV and radio continue to report that another planet has entered our solar system. And the closer it gets to us, the more we learn about it; it’s a lot like Earth; later they find it’s identical to Earth (Rhoda squinting at the tiny blue mystery while driving home is a partial explanation for the crash – oh, well that’s not so bad then…). A scientist from SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project at U. of C. Berkeley) sends out radio messages to Earth II and discovers she’s having a conversation with…herself, who is performing the exact same task on the other planet, and has the exact same history as her Earth I counterpart, right down to street names and a childhood trip to Cape Canaveral. And as Rhoda and John’s relationship proceeds, the other Earth looms larger and larger in the sky. ‘If you could meet your other you,’ the official web page asks, ‘what would you say?’
Let’s pause for a moment here, shall we? Burroughs doesn’t know that Rhoda killed his family because her identity was never revealed because she was a minor. But Rhoda got four years of hard time for the offense, seemingly in an adult facility, which is an unheard-of sentence for a juvenile offender, deaths notwithstanding.* He never learned her identity? Was never curious? Really? So the scenario, from the beginning, is a chin-scratcher. But I was far more offended by the idea that she would narcissistically re-enter his life in search of redemption. Maybe I’m a cold and heartless bastard, but my gut reaction was that she should be seeking redemption in what she does with the rest of her life, instead of presumptively intruding on his. What information have we been given about her that justifies this? It’s assumed we’ll cut her some slack because her future was oh-so-bright. Would we take that assumption for granted if our protagonist was male? Or white trash? Or a black woman, or Latina? Perhaps we would, but melancholy-middle-class-willowy-blond-girl tends to substitute here for more thorough character-creation, and that’s too bad.
Burroughs’ life seems to be a grief-counseling-free zone – we emotionally understand how he ended up like this, but there’s no underlying practical context in reality for it – he’s just a free-floating victim, feebly sketched out only to serve the filmmakers’ conceits. It’s to some slim credit that, as things turn out, he’s never asked to forgive her, but her need for connection with this poor fucker, to me, is as unforgivably selfish as the initial tragedy. There’s no attempt or inclination on her part to create something through herself that might be of any value to him at some point later on. And when something like that thing does surface later on, he accepts it for the same self-serving, narcissistic reasons that she offers it in the first place; my personal redemption at your expense.
And about that other planet – how exactly does that work? Where’s the sun that it orbits around? Why haven’t we noticed another sun? What’s the orbit that this planet’s in? Is there another Mars, another Venus, another Mercury? Is it on a much, much larger orbit around a much bigger sun that’s much further away? Why doesn’t that sun affect our solar system? If it’s interdimensional, why are we seeing it now? What’s different? If you’re going to create something to serve as a metaphor, or an ironic anomaly, to our own philosophical or moral condition, based on taking a vague, self-indulgent flyer on multiverse hypotheses, then it also needs the eensiest, teensiest sliver of plausibility. Audiences are pretty generous with their credulity if you make honest attempts to give them even flimsy explanations, but not to bother at all? Because you think your thematic conceit is that cool? It’s a little insulting, frankly.
William Mapother, who plays John Burroughs, is a pro. You’ll recognize him from countless TV guest appearances and film roles. So I consider him blameless in the complete lack of chemistry or believability in the ‘two-hander’ scenario that Cahill and Marling have created. But what’s Marling’s excuse? She co-wrote the damned thing. Cahill is, to be kind, deficient in his ability to elicit credible performances from his actors. The script calls for them to be connecting, and they get up and pretend it’s happening, but we never believe they’re genuinely listening to each other. Don’t even get me started on the pseudo-ascetic subplot involving one of Rhoda’s co-janitors (*slaps forehead, shakes head dismissively*). And, for a guy who cut his teeth on National Geographic documentaries, Cahill’s clearly-paraded cluelessness on camera placement, editing, use of multiple film stocks and visual narrative arc is downright embarrassing.
If this was just a limited-release independent movie from a small distributor, I’d give them the benefit of the doubt for a modest failure and wish them better luck next time. But clearly Fox Searchlight is promoting hell out of this film in a shameless display of Weinstein-style Oscar-baiting. If Cahill and company willfully want to enter this league with their first feature film, then they’ll deserve the critical drubbing that I suspect this film will receive. With a poorly conceived, questionably presented soap-opera-meets-The-Twilight-Zone story, combined with a scientific howler context only an evangelical Republican could love, this film is light years away from what intelligent audiences should buy as serious dramatic entertainment.
‘Another Earth’ opens in Chicago theaters on Friday, July 29th.
*Update 8/29/11 – smarter people than I have pointed out that she would have been incarcerated until her 21st birthday. So her sentence, is, indeed, realistic.