Another Earth Dir. Mike Cahill

[Fox Searchlight; 2011]

Styles: sci-fi, drama
Others: Primer, Dark Star, Boxers and Ballerinas

Ambition should never be overlooked. If it’s genuine, it means that a filmmaker, a writer, a cinematographer, a group of actors, or everyone together was committed to making a film that will, at the very least, feel different than most films you are likely to see. A movie with ambition will be frustrating, especially if made on a low budget by people who haven’t quite found their cinematic footing. It may even seem incomplete, possess many clunker lines and/or awkwardly shoehorned messages, and generally feel like an unrealized version of some hypothetically great piece of art. But along with its flaws, an ambitious film will give the sense of a real, living movie, one that’s been made because someone needed to make it, because someone decided, rightly, that making a movie was the fullest way to say what, in their case, absolutely had to be said. How many movies have you seen feel like they were being shouted in the breathless sputter of a brilliant homeless guy — like they had the desire but not necessarily the means to say something great?

Another Earth, for instance, is ambitious. I’m sorry to be grandiose about all of this, but I did feel a bit saved seeing this tiny brainchild of a film the day after I was forced to partake in the test-marketed drudgework of Zookeeper, a movie that goes a long way towards making a person feel like the movies have ground to an ignominious halt. What Zookeeper does is prompt a person to ask: Is watching talentless oafs fatten up terrible scripts all we have to look forward to in the movies? In answer, inevitably, come less-polished, more ambitious, immeasurably more sincere movies like Another Earth.

The film opens with the appearance of a planet that mirrors the one we’re on, hovering in the sky somewhere to the left of the moon. It’s an event paid rapt attention by the whole world, but it occurs on the night of a tragedy noticed by few except its victims. Rhoda (Brit Marling), a young scientist just accepted to MIT, kills a family of four (including an unborn child) while driving drunk and staring at the new planet out of her car window. This is not the first time the other earth will cause a rift in Rhoda’s fate, but it is the beginning of a new life for her. She spends four years in prison and comes out wanting nothing but escape from other people — that is, until she finds out that the father of the family she killed, a famous composer named John Burroughs (William Mapother), is still alive. Making a stab towards atonement, she makes contact with him; at just about the same time, SETI scientists are making it with the second earth.

Rhoda forms a relationship with John, despite her better judgement. Try as she might, she can’t bring herself to tell him she killed his family. Although this requires tricking him, the friendship they develop is genuine, even if its notes are hit too broadly and its dialogue too full of a false ring for a movie about delicate metaphysical questions. Which is, despite the flaws, what this movie is. The other earth, a high-concept idea to have as the driving force behind any movie, let alone a cheap one, does little but loom over humanity, forcing it to wonder what will happen next. The point of Another Earth is Rhoda, and death, and guilt, and grief, and connection, and the fact that our smallest experiences are not essentially different from the problems of humanity itself. Here is a movie that envisions these things as the specter of our own minds, hanging literally over our heads. Too obvious a metaphor or an act of real daring?

Another Earth is a science-fiction movie the way that Raymond Chandler was a writer of hard-boiled detective novels. The principles of the genre are nominally in place, but character, pain, and, for lack of a better term, reality are the focus. It’s also a low-budget character study the way Bukowski was a poet. It forges ahead with its creations, no matter how obvious the flaws. Mr. Chandler didn’t need car chases and shootouts to make Philip Marlowe a complex character as well as a detective; Bukowski didn’t need a master’s degree to write tough poetry; and sci-fi movies don’t need special effects to make a point. This is to say that Another Earth will not go down in film history as “great art,” but it may be the beginning of the career of a great artist. It leaves you with the question of what new surprises lay ahead.

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