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Roads Not Taken

by Ross Douthat

A review of Another Earth

Late summer, like midwinter, is a time of year when it’s best to shun the big studio releases. Any star-studded blockbuster or crowd-pleasing comedy that’s actually worth its budget (i.e., not Cowboys & Aliens or The Change-Up) would have elbowed its way into theaters between Memorial Day and July 4th; any drama with more than a hint of Oscar potential (i.e., not The Help) would have been saved for November or December. Moviegoers are better off seeking out the smaller releases instead, looking for the curious pieces of artistic driftwood that sometimes wash up in a season’s dying days.

Perhaps this year’s strangest such offering is Another Earth, a movie notable for its leading lady (about whom more anon) and its peculiar genre-bending premise. Late on a New England night, the teenaged and MIT-bound Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling) hears a radio report about a newly discovered Earth-like planet, drunkenly leans out her car window to stare up into the night sky, and plows into a college professor and his family, killing his wife and son and unborn daughter. The professor (William Mapother) is thrown into a coma, while Rhoda spends four years in prison. Then the movie leaps ahead to after they’ve both been released — him into grief, her into guilt — and tracks her attempts to forge some kind of connection with the man whose life she recklessly destroyed.

So far this probably sounds like a typical aftermath-of-tragedy melodrama, by turns wrenching and implausible. But there’s a science-fiction twist: That “Earth-like planet” turns out to be literally Earth-like, a carbon copy of our own world that suddenly looms up, moon and continents all, in the sky above Rhoda’s New Haven home. Moon and continents and people and all: When a SETI scientist tries to make radio contact with the mysterious new world, she ends up having a conversation with her doppelganger on Earth 2.

I just called this “science fiction,” but really it’s better to call it a Twilight Zone conceit, since no real scientific explanation is ever proffered for the doubled Earth, beyond vague references to hidden orbits and alternate universes. It’s the latter possibility — that the new world represents some sort of road not taken, where the same people might be living out very different lives — that makes the other Earth an object of obsession for Rhoda, and a destination that she begins plotting desperately to reach.

If the symbolism here seems more than a little heavy-handed — well, it is. But Another Earth deserves points for owning its heavy-handedness and playing its genre mash-up completely straight, without a trace of sub–David Lynch surrealism or ironic self-awareness. One joke or wink, one suggestive dream sequence, one hint that the entire Earth 2 phenomenon might be happening inside Rhoda’s guilt-wracked mind, and the spell would be broken. Instead, the movie’s unwavering commitment to its premise lends Another Earth an interesting sort of integrity, and enables the movie to at least approach the mix of dread and wonder that the filmmakers are clearly aiming for.

The visuals help.Another Earth depicts New Haven — the faded brick-and-concrete city, not just the Yale oasis — as a kind of wintry limbo, all sunsets and blue-gray dawns, with the huge Earth 2 looming like a promise of paradise (or damnation?) overhead. In the New England farmhouse where the bereaved professor has hunkered down, the Earthlight washes in at all hours, like a searchlight sweeping over an Andrew Wyeth exhibit. The budget is obviously shoestring and the digital video sometimes feels a little ragged, but overall the movie has a strange beauty all its own.

But it’s the cast that really sells the story. Mapother (recognizable to fans of Lost and the 2001 indie darling In the Bedroom) has a great face for suffering, with sunken eyes and furrows like ravines. Marling has a great face, period: Long and luminous and expressive, with precisely the mix of loveliness and mystery that separates the potential movie star from the mere onscreen beauty. She’s in almost every scene, and she holds the film together: The melodrama may creak and the fantastic element may teeter on the edge of absurdity, but the audience never stops believing in Rhoda’s humanity, her anguish, or her heart.

Marling co-wrote Rhoda as well as bringing her to life. (The script for Another Earth is her collaboration with the film’s director, Mike Cahill, who’s also her ex-boyfriend.) I’m not sure if she should stick with screenwriting: This movie is too strange to tell us much about what its makers might be capable of writing next. But her acting is another matter. Whether Brit Marling keeps turning out scripts or not, every director in Hollywood should be lining up to make sure that she keeps on starring in them.

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