80: Another Earth (2011)

wri-dir. Mike Cahill, wri. Brit Marling, USA, 2011, 92 mins

Like its contemporaries Tree of Life and Melancholia, Another Earth (written and directed by Mike Cahill) deploys astronomical imagery in order to provoke what the Catholic Church used to call the “fear of the Lord” but which now goes by the slightly more mundane “wonder and awe”:  the sense that the celestial body which dominates your gaze, in its implacable ambiguity, is either passing judgment on the drama of your life or an omnipresent reminder of how insignificant that drama is in the face of eternity. The film does this from the outset, presenting low-res telescopic footage of Jupiter that is nonetheless hypnotic, as Rhoda (Brit Marling, also co-writer) — her narration hypnotic in its own right — describes how she became entranced by looking up into space, enough to make it her life’s work.

That entrancement kicks off the film as Rhoda, distracted while driving by the appearance of the titular planet in the night sky, crashes into and kills the wife and son of composer John Burroughs (William Mapother). Four years later, the former MIT-bound student turned ex-con janitor emerges from prison and is on a path to put her life back together — a path that leads to John’s doorstep. She spends time with him under the guise of being a house cleaner, something he’s in desperate need of, as his tragic loss has left him a bitter shell of a man. And so Rhoda proceeds to get close to the man whose life she ruined (he’s unaware of who she really is), not entirely sure if she’s trying to make amends or assuage her own guilt. And the second Earth hangs up in the sky, a reminder that perhaps there’s another Rhoda who didn’t make the mistakes that she did — and there just happens to be a contest for a chance to visit that planet…

Trying to get too specific about genre classification only leads to narrow-minded arguments about definitions rather than addressing the heart of the work, so I’ll tread lightly here: the power of science fiction does not lie in outlandish settings or chrome-plated visuals. What matters in science fiction–in good science fiction–is using concepts at the frontiers of human understanding as a way to rattle the assumptions we make about everyday experience so that we can view our society and ourselves in a different light. The science is a means to an end, a signpost towards catharsis and enlightenment.

Herein lies in the problem with Another Earth: it seems like it should be kindred spirits with something like the two Solaris films, with its stretches of introspection and its planet-sized reflection of human-sized loss and guilt. And yet that reflection is ultimately shallow. Cahill and Marling are in love with their concept, and the scenes that are on point with that concept resonate with power, such as when Rhoda and her family watch a broadcast of SETI attempting to make first contact with the other Earth. But this power is a power of surfaces, and the trappings of science are used to provide easy visual metaphor for a story that would struggle in a more mundane mold. The visual vocabulary of space and the planets is meant to give weight to the human drama, which asks us to read it in terms of the trajectory of human orbits and cosmic coincidences; an instrumental performance by Mapother’s character recalls what astronomers once called the “music of the spheres”.

But those are all merely curlicues on a simple melodrama about penance and guilt and heartbreak, about a woman longing to undo the mistakes of the past while the night sky makes her inner demons literal. The concept is enticing but the execution wanting: Rhoda and John’s trajectories are clearly marked but rather than plumb their psychological depths, they are content to stagnate in the mechanical repetition of emotional beats — a process which may reflect the doubling motif of the film but is ultimately frustrating. And amidst its grand conceptual machinery there are elements which ultimately ring false, as when magical minority Purdeep (Kumar Pallana), Rhoda’s janitorial colleague, is offered up as a sacrificial lamb by the film in order to show Rhoda the path to True Wisdom.

Yet it’s difficult to fault these filmmakers too strongly for missteps that seem borne from an excess of ambition. Though its concepts and images are put into service as crutches for flawed melodrama, those images still have power. Perhaps out there is another Earth where this film is a masterwork. (Talking about regrets, perhaps there’s also another Earth where that joke landed properly…)