What would you do if you could meet yourself? Would you leap into your own arms and petition for legal marriage? Or would you recoil at the sheer mindfuck of looking into your own face, unmediated by a looking glass? Director Mike Cahill’s feature debut, “Another Earth”, investigates this premise through a deeply intimate lens to balance between a poignant earthly love story within the extensive scope of extraterrestrial inquiry.
The film entertains the notion of a duplicate planet in our solar system, an exact replica of Earth and its history such that all inhabitants have an identical counterpart on Earth 2 who has experienced the same life. Yet, despite the thematic permeation of this hypothesis, “Another Earth” is very much an intimate human story. A tragic car accident tears apart the lives of two characters, M.I.T. student Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling) and composer John Burroughs (William Mapother), and yokes their shattered selves together. In the accident, Williams kills Burroughs’ wife and young son but her name was not disclosed as she was a minor at the time. Four years later, after her release from prison, she seeks out the father of the family she killed in hopes of redemption. Unaware of her identity, Burroughs begins to fall in love with her, extracting a kind of rebirth from their relationship. When Williams wins through an essay contest a chance to journey to Earth 2, their fragile love begins to unravel as both characters reevaluate their second chances.
Cahill and Marling co-wrote the screenplay, constructing the film’s scientific skeleton from the the idea of superior conjunction, which means that two earths orbit constantly around opposite sides of the Sun. Cahill even enlisted the support of renowned physicist Richard Berenson, who narrates the closing scene of the film, detailing the broken mirror theory and how it explains the break of the two planets’ synchronicity after they become aware of one another.
Through the subsequent actions of both characters following the calamity, Cahill toys with the concept of atonement and renaissance, a second chance of sorts. We never journey to the second earth, but its existence is ever looming and provides a layer of mystery to the film’s ambiguity. Because the specifics of this parallel world are never revealed to us, it remains undefined and brims with possibilities. We then, as viewers, are invited to filter the story through our own subjective imaginings, as we ponder the infinite “what-ifs” this world presents.
The film threads a sharp, cathartic story of human tragedy through the greater scope of technology and extraterrestrial discovery. The cinematography is especially demonstrative of this, as many of the shot sequences focus exclusively on Marling’s character and her experience throughout the scientific breakthrough. The camera work darts in and out of focus, punctuated by shaky walking sequences and steady wide-angle shots, visually conveying Williams’ internal oscillation between chaos and clarity.
The triumph of “Another Earth” lies in its deft and masterful use of science as a mirror through which we glimpse ourselves in a dissociated medium. Although the film does not venture too deeply into philosophical realms of a duplicate planet’s implications and chooses instead to focus on personal themes of romance and redemption, it seldom strays into the prosaism of melodrama. Many subtleties and sustained motifs nourish the film’s dynamism: Marling’s character is often associated with the cello, while Mapother’s character is linked with the piano. When they make love for the first time, their musical threads converge to swell and fall in harmony, adding a layer of unspoken connection between them.
“Another Earth” is not a sci-fi movie. If you are seeking aliens and outer-space gadgets, I’d suggest “Men in Black”. Instead, the film leads you to the edge of the pool of science without revealing the contents beneath its glassy surface, leaving you dazed in the movie theater after the lights have come back on, mind brimming with bubbling what-ifs.