film review: ANOTHER EARTH

Directed by Mike Cahill
Produced by Hunter Gray, Cahill, Brit Marling & Nicholas Shumaker
Written by Cahill & Marling
Released by Fox Searchlight
USA. 92 min. Rated PG-13
With William Mapother, Brit Marling, Jordan Baker, Robin Lord Taylor & Flint Beverage

[Article originally appears: http://film-forward.com/anoearth.html]

“Another Earth”, the first feature film from Mike Cahill, is not science fiction, strictly speaking. The plot does include interplanetary space travel and alien beings, but the film contains virtually no special effects, except for the few that are already apparent in the film’s trailer and other promotional material, so I am not dropping any spoilers by saying that one includes the distant image of a second planet Earth.

Press photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight

“Another Earth” is one among a crop of recent films that uses science fiction as metaphor. I suppose one could argue that it’s a return to form in that way. It’s closer in feel to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner”, and Steven Spielberg’s “AI Artificial Intelligence” in that it emphasizes story and character above all else. It’s a touching, wistful, and poetically executed movie, and feels old-fashioned and contemporary all at once.

The film starts in prologue mode with Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling, who also shares co-writer credit with the director), a capricious young woman fresh out of high school soon to attend MIT. Driving along the New England coastal town where she lives, Rhoda becomes distracted by a radio report about the discovery of a new planet that resembles Earth that has been hiding behind the sun and is only just beginning to appear. While driving, she cranes her neck out the window to get a glimpse, causing an unfortunate trajectory, both for her as well as for the film’s other main character, family man John Burroughs (William Mapother of “Lost”). The aftermath of their convergence involves a prison sentence for Rhoda and far more tragic results for John.

Brit Marling & William Mapother of ANOTHER EARTH; press photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight

The story then flashes forward some time later as Rhoda, now free, returns to her family’s home and takes up a job as a school janitor. There she makes friends with a Yoda-like fellow janitor named Purdeep (Wes Anderson regular Kumar Pallana). The two have a subtle relationship, but one that becomes clearer over the course of the film. It’s one demonstration of many in a fine script. Her burgeoning excitement about applying for a seat on a privatized trip to the new planet seems to compel her to make things right with John. She shows up at his door with the intention of taking responsibility for his plight, but she loses her nerve and ends up becoming his house cleaner. Nevertheless, the two begin a gradual relationship. While we know where the relationship is headed from the first instant, Cahill makes their coming together completely credible; she cleans his home, and he slowly emerges from his alcoholic isolation. They both, in their way, come back to life.

“Another Earth” will most likely leave you breathless. Between the storyline and the performances, you are swept up, and the ending will certainly come as a surprise. It’s a highly textured film that reminds you, as it slowly unfurls in front of you, what a rare American-made movie it is in an age of endless comic book adaptations and blockbuster sequels. If, indeed, there is an alternate Earth, I hope Mike Cahill is there making movies.

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