I’m a cantankerous old goat, rarely moved to hyperbole, but I was simply enthralled by this film: totally absorbed throughout, except when I found myself chuckling giddily at the realisation I was watching a profoundly brilliant piece of cinema. The last time I had that sensation was in 1991 when I saw Silence of the Lambs. Another Earth is an utterly different film, but in its own way it offers, just as completely, everything that this medium of film promises and so rarely delivers.
In Another Earth, a new planet appears, close by, in the sky. In fact, it is another Earth, identical to our own. Thereafter, Earth II precipitates, frames and propels a delicate and desolate gravitational attraction between two irreparably damaged people. Irreparably damaged because the only thing which will heal them is the only thing that cannot: each other. Another Earth explores that relationship and, with the aid of the planet-sized metaphor, the ever-present path-dependency of our short, brutish existences.
This is an independent film: budgets are tight and much is shot, Blair Witch style, on a hand-held camcorder. The blown-out exposures, over-sharpened lines and noisy, boxy sound give the picture the feel of a student project. But science fiction with production values at zero is like silent film: if forces you to watch, and undistracted by dazzling computer generated images and 7.1 digital surround sound, you are drawn fully into the ingenious screenplay and the human resonances it explores.
Rhoda Williams is about to go to college. She’s smart: she’ll be an MIT astrophysics undergraduate, and she’s handsome: not a million miles from a young Laura Dern. You might call her pretty, but she’s by no means saccharine sweet. She is, however, tipsy: intoxicated not just with the promise of the path on which her young life is taking her, but with a little too much champagne. She gets in her car to go home. Rhoda takes her eyes off the road and gazes at this new Earth.
There is, of course, a ghastly accident. It brings Rhoda together with John Burroughs, a composer and a devoted husband and father who is the only survivor when Rhoda’s car ploughs into his at a pedestrian crossing. Thus are their characters brought together and simultaneously flung apart by the centripetal force of their own damaged psychologies to the most isolated, remotest reaches of human space.
When John Burroughs emerges from his coma his reaction to his family’s death is, well, to burrow: he retreats to the huge, draughty and decaying New Haven house, to drink, wither and die. He compounds his downward spiral with clutter: rubbish, bottles and piles of trash: the detritus of his life are the physical manifestations of his disintegrating psyche.
Rhoda emerges, after a similar period, from prison. Her spiral seems as destructive and hopeless as John’s; she withdraws into herself and hatches various plans to escape the here-and-now altogether. Her more benign attempt is to enter an essay competition to win a seat on a probe to Earth II being organised by an Australian entrepreneur (yes, I found this odd too: perhaps this is a parallel universe where the men from down under won the space race). Rhoda also tries more damaging means of putting an end to her suffering, too.
While morosely visiting the scene of the accident Rhoda observes John Burroughs doing the same. He knows little of the details of the accident and nothing of Rhoda. She resolves at least to apologise to him, gets as far as his front door and, human frailty being what it is, fluffs her lines. Instead, she makes an excuse by dint of which she winds up in a distant, but ongoing interaction with Burroughs anyway.
Thence commences the tragic, and delicate, convergence of these lonely orbits. All the while that missing admission, like Earth II in the sky, looms ever larger.
Their burgeoning relationship, we know, is as flawed by human weakness as was the accident, and yet here are two people, with no alternative means of recovery and who offer each other great redemption, but only so long as there is this awful lie between them.
The film unfolds carefully, slowly and wondrously, without a false step throughout its length.
When I emerged from the cinema a giant gibbous moon hung low over the Soho skyline like another world, as if even the universe itself was pitching in to Cahill’s metaphorical scheme. It followed me home, slinking behind the trees and between buildings, always there, watching my every step. It’s still there now.
Beautiful, and profound.
Another Earth appears in cinema 9th December 2011.
Director: Mike Cahill
Writers: Brit Marling, Mike Cahill
Stars: Brit Marling, William Mapother, Matthew-Lee Erlbach
Runtime: 92 min