The Sundance-approved drama Another Earth is built around an idea that has fueled countless late-night, substance-enhanced dorm room discussions: what if, somewhere up there in the heavens, there was a parallel Earth where another version of you existed. Only instead of following your life path exactly, this Earth-2 you has opted for the opposite of every single decision you've ever made. Instead of Political Science, he/she majored in Marine Biology. Instead of losing the phone number for that hottie at the coffee shop, he/she called it right away. Instead of having Count Chocula for breakfast, he/she had a half-grapefruit. Are they any happier because they picked the second of these two divergent roads? Is their life more complete, their bank account fuller, their work and/or personal relationships more fulfilling? And here's the million dollar question: Would you trade places with them if you could?
As gripping narrative hooks go, this one is a doozy; indeed, there's so much potential inherent in this premise, you'd have to work really hard to screw it up. So it pains me to report that Another Earth accepts that challenge and comes perilously close to pulling off an epic botch. That the film manages to maintain its hold on the viewer's imagination even as co-writers Brit Marling (who also stars) and Mike Cahill (who directs) makes bonehead decision after bonehead decision tells you just how potent its central conceit is. A big source of my disappointment with the film is that, having established the existence of a parallel blue planet that's a mirror image of this one, Another Earth ignores the fascinating sociological, political and scientific implications of this discovery and instead treats it as an extended metaphor in an aggravatingly melodramatic plot involving forgiveness and second chances. To put it another way, I was hoping for a story in the vein of Rod Serling or Arthur C. Clarke and instead I got Robert James Waller or Nicholas Sparks.
Okay, that's overstating things a bit. Another Earth isn't Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend bad. But the story it spins is sometimes just as risible; Marling plays high-school student Rhoda, who is behind the wheel of her car -- more than a little buzzed from the party she's just left -- when the radio reports that astronomers have spotted a previously hidden planet that bears some striking similarities to Earth. While peering out her window trying to catch a glimpse of this world-changing discovery, she plows her vehicle into a parked car that carries music professor John (William Mapother, best known as Ethan from Lost), his pregnant wife and their young son. Mother and child die instantly and John just barely survives, remaining in a coma for months. Meanwhile, Rhoda serves a four-year stretch in prison and when she gets out, she's lost all of her youthly ambition, not to mention her will to live.
During her incarceration, NASA scientists have determined that this new planet is capable of human life and, in fact, is populated by homo sapiens living in big cities much like the ones on Earth. When communication is finally established with the other world, they learn something even more astonishing: the two planets are mirror images of each other. That means that if you exist on this Earth, your double is likely walking around up there right now as well. Rhoda becomes obsessed with this thought, as well as the possibility that her other self avoided the accident that robbed two people of their lives and a father of his family. So she decides to apply to an online contest organized by a wealthy Australian businessman that's sponsoring his own privately-funded trip to the second Earth. While waiting to find out if she's won, Rhoda feels compelled to check in on the man whose life she ruined, who now spends much of his time in a drunken stupor. Passing herself off as a maid, she shows up at his house every week to clean up. Gradually, John begins to open up to her and even overlooks the blatant warning signs -- like the fact that cleaning company she claims to work for has no record of her and she hasn't been cashing any of his checks -- because he so desperately desires her company. For her part, she doesn't do anything to discourage his attentions, not just due to her crushing guilt, but also because, deep down, she hopes they can heal each other.
You can probably guess where their relationship goes next and it's every bit as awkward and unpleasant as you might imagine. On the one hand, these characters are supposed to be too blinded by their grief to realize how poor their judgment is. On the other, the choices they make are so rash and ill-considered, they don't ring true at all. Instead of individuals, Rhoda and John come across as pawns in the screenwriters' pointedly manipulative story arc. There are still things to like amidst the tedium and grandstanding; Marling, for example, is a sharper actress than she is a writer, effectively capturing Rhoda's sense of desperation. (Mapother is far less effective as John, but that's also because the script requires him to make too many foolish choices.) The soundtrack by former LCD Soundsystem guitarist Philip Mossman's new outfit Fall On Your Sword is evocative as well. And the final scene is marvelous, concluding with a haunting shot that may explain everything or nothing. Then there's that second Earth that hangs in the sky throughout, an image that the movie returns to again and again. It's an image that speaks to something primal within many of us -- the knowledge that for every choice we make there's another path that remains unexplored and the hunger for that unattainable certainty that our lives are the best they can be. Even with its many failings, Another Earth strikes a nerve that can't help but inspire deeper reflection after you leave the theater.
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