Beautiful and slight, “Another Earth” imagines a parallel universe that people visit, though not just any people. You must win a contest to get there. Earth 2, as it’s called in Mike Cahill’s new sci-fi romance-drama, is frequently glimpsed from Earth, which it resembles. Earth 2 looms in the “near” distance like a heavenly, tantalizing illusion. “Another Earth” opened today at the Embarcadero Center Cinema.
A lonely janitor named Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling) is culpable in a tragedy, one affecting the life of composer John Burroughs (William Mapother). It’s a crime she serves jail time for. John, a man frozen in his own time by life, thinks the newly-released Rhoda visits to clean his unkempt home but she’s really there to apologize and erase the ugliness inside that her heart has wrought on him. Rhoda can’t quite bring herself to face the truth and convey her deepest regrets. Soon, Rhoda wins a trip to Earth 2. Things get complicated.
As tightly written by the director and Ms. Marling, “Another Earth” is an allegory about becoming a better you and having a second chance to make things right in life. Unfortunately the film is wrapped in a lazy sci-fi symbolism, which weakens its seriousness and weight as a thought-provoking piece of cinema. The film’s concept of reaching for something in the cosmos, something metaphysical perhaps, something to aspire to be and attach to, is admirable, however. As a love story, “Another Earth” works well, and is impressive without the rote machinations that dilute its potency. The film, shot on digital video to approximate a muted texture and ethereal quality, mines its inner world while projecting a grander canvas than its intimate two-character set-up merits.
Often mannered, and interrupted by voices louder than its calm, sensible principals, Mr. Cahill’s film forces the outer edges of its atmosphere on you under the guise of evolving to a higher place. Repetitive, slow-motion shots of Rhoda walking while a radio-sounding voice blares are overdone and pretentious desired to achieve an effect, yet I don’t think “Another Earth” is a pretentious film. The clutter of style and its juxtaposition to the film’s tranquility both interrupts and dilutes its appeal and strength, which is just about its only crime, but it’s a crime that troubled me. Did Mr. Cahill underestimate his audience, or his own ability to present as pure a journey as he possibly could? I’m not completely sure of the answer, but I believe he could have been even more ambitious than he is here.
I think Mr. Cahill is far smarter than some of the elements of his film, which features the bright, intelligent debut of Ms. Marling, who has never acted before on the big screen. As Rhoda she projects halting curiosity and inner turmoil that is commanding but in a very discreet way. We never see what it is Rhoda wants but she finds some unexpected people on Earth 2. What does Rhoda want from this trip? What does John want from his life? He knows he’ll never be the same. John is a man stuck in a moment. Rhoda is too but she is looking to travel out of it.
This film is about sensation and an aurora moment of discovery. “Another Earth” is a sensual exploration tamped down by the melancholy of Rhoda’s loneliness and her dilemma. With its sparse, stark world “Another Earth” could be set in any town, anywhere in the world. There’s a suddenness and immediacy that punctuates many of the film’s scenes. There’s a Bergmanesque feel to the close-ups of faces, sad, anguished and tortured.
Ms. Marling has expressive looks on such an ordinary face, and an enormous amount of self-possession and maturity. Her Rhoda is one of the best and sharpest displays by a newcomer to the big screen this year. She holds her own well against Mr. Mapother, whose work as the beleaguered and grieving composer is some of the best he’s done. This leading man role could well catapult the actor to great things after a career of supporting work, including “In The Bedroom”. It’s far from outlandish to suggest his suitability as a nominee next January, or for that matter, Ms. Marling’s.
A solemn experience amounting to a faded wish, “Another Earth” has sincere realism and occasional magic, with subtle transitions representing an evolution in the heart. Haunting, sexy, clever and mildly unnerving, “Another Earth” represents self-investigation well. If you wanted to travel to another planet, how would you travel there? What tools would you use? Mr. Cahill and Ms. Marling have an engaging story whose pace may lull some to sleep, but the occasional “noise” emanating from the film’s outer edges was a distraction I couldn’t bear. The director makes a mistake with this stylistic choice, which distracted and drove me out of the story, which is too bad given the film’s fine acting.
–At the Embarcadero Center Cinema
With: Matthew-Lee Erbach, Robin Taylor, Meggan Lennon, Bruce Winant, Jordan Baker, DJ Flava, A.J. Diana.
“Another Earth” is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for some disturbing images, some sexuality, nudity and a brief drug use. The film’s running time is one hour and 32 minutes.
For a list of Omar’s joltleft.com stories and film reviews, click here. He is a contributing film critic for “Ebert Presents At The Movies” on PBS television and also a far flung correspondent for the preeminent film critic Roger Ebert and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.
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