Thursday, August 18, 2011
Review: "Another Earth"
One of the less-talked about, yet most surprising trends of 2011 has come from an unexpected merger: independent films and cosmic/sci-fi elements. First was Terrence Malick's long-gestating The Tree of Life, with its grandiose depictions of the big bang and the early stages of life on earth. Next came Lars von Trier's Melancholia, which featured a plot involving a hidden planet that would have felt right at home in some overblown Hollywood production. Now comes Mike Cahill's Another Earth, which made its debut at Sundance earlier this year to mixed reviews.
Yet despite some simple-yet-convincing VFX work and cool black and white footage of Jupiter, Cahill's film is easily the least cosmically minded of the trio. When we first meet Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling), she's just been accepted to MIT, and is celebrating by partying with some friends. As she drives home, she hears on the radio that a duplicate earth has been discovered far off in the distance. As Rhoda, already somewhat drunk, becomes mesmerized by the new blue light in the sky, she tragically crosses paths with Yale professor John Burroughs (William Mapother) and his family. The film then jumps ahead four years, to the day of Rhoda's release from prison, with the duplicate earth now looming overhead 24/7.
But even with the inclusion of a subplot involving a contest to win a trip to the so-called Earth 2, the duplicate planet takes a backseat to Rhoda's attempts at redemption. Cahill and Marling's script would rather use Earth 2 in order to raise questions about identity and second chances. Unfortunately, that's where the problems start to surface. Strip Another Earth of its thin layer of sci-fi, and its story of redemption becomes rather trite. There's nothing new brought to the narrative, which involves Rhoda making peace with John - he doesn't know she's the student from the accident - by pretending to be part of a cleaning service. John's life (and, consequently, his house) has fallen into disarray, but as Rhoda starts to make her weekly cleaning visits, the pair begin to bond (see what they did there?).
Well sure, but the sci-fi elements are there, so that must add something, right? Not exactly. There's an interesting subplot about an essay contest to decide who will be the lone 'average joe' to go on the mission to Earth 2, but by the time it truly comes to the foreground, there's not much it can do to lift the otherwise familiar proceedings. Cahill and Marling are clearly trying to use the duplicate earth story in order to give this intimate story bigger, deeper implications, but their effort stops at the most basic level. At best, there's one conversation between Rhoda and John about Earth 2, and a theory about how it may differ from our own planet, but it's used strictly as a plot device, and never attempts anything bigger. Save for a scene where John plays a strange little tune for Rhoda using a violin bow and a saw, there's nothing about this type of relationship that we haven't seen before, and it isn't terribly interesting in its own right. It's merely held together by those scenes involving mentions of Earth 2, or the slow-mo shots of Rhoda walking along the street while the planet looms in the background.
And speaking of walking, there's quite a bit of that. Rhoda doesn't even speak (disregarding her opening voice-over) for the first 10 minutes of the film. Instead, Cahill gives us shot after shot of Rhoda walking or staring. These scenes do convey the sense of alienation that Rhoda feels, but since the writing for her character isn't terribly deep and her guilt isn't explored with great success, they can be repetitive. This is a shame, because there was potential to create something truly compelling out of Marling and Mapother's work. The pair have a decent chemistry with each other, but even though they share quite a bit of screen time together, little comes of it. The result is that, despite some nice moments, the performances come off as merely adequate, no matter how many times Mapother looks downtrodden or Marling stares off into the distance. The tragic circumstances of the plot aren't enough to give these characters the emotional depth and resonance that Cahill is clearly striving for.
The performances, at least, fare better than the screenplay, which throws out an intriguing scene, only to then cut to the credits. If there was any doubt as to whether or not I might have had some fond feelings for Another Earth, Cahill and Marling erased it with the ending. It's a cheap shot, one that's meant to provoke a sudden "whoa!" moment and then leave you stunned as the credits roll. Unfortunately, given the gradual build up, the ending feels like a cheat. This was where the film could have fully explored its sci-fi premise, and the nature of chance and identity. The ambiguity didn't necessarily have to be a bad thing, but here it rings false, as if Cahill and Marling got too scared of actually exploring their sci-fi conceit to the fullest extent, and decided to tack on a vague 'shock' in the hope that it would leave audiences thinking. I'll admit, I was left thinking, but not about the film's meaning. Rather, I was thinking about what a wasted opportunity Another Earth turned out to be.