Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Aug 07, 2011 4:43 pm 
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In the suburbs of New Haven, Connecticut, Earth 1

Another Earth is, or means to be, a sci-fi redemption flick, though it's without any real redemption. It's a story about events that lead up to and follow a fatal car crash. Mike Cahill, who collaborated with his pretty star Brit Marling in writing the script, is ambitious in delivering high concept on low budget. His jittery digital video camerawork and loud music and sound effects hold your attention. There is moody atmosphere and a pervasive sense of adolescent doom worthy of Donnie Darko. Too bad young Jake Gyllenhaal isn't on hand and there's no scary, magical giant rabbit -- or any of Darko's ingenious plot devices. Marling is luminous and pretty. But is that enough?

Marling plays Rhoda Williams. At 17 she was a brilliant high schooler who'd just won a scholarship to study astrophysics at MIT when she got drunk to celebrate and caused a highway accident. It killed the pregnant wife and little son of John Burroughs, a composer and professor of music at Yale. Burroughs was left in a coma and, in the aftermath, devastated by his loss and unable to teach any more, has been sitting around at home boozing and accumulating rubbish for four years, while Rhoda has been incarcerated.

Burroughs doesn't know who Rhoda is, because she was a minor and hence the court records suppressed her name. This allows Rhoda, out of jail now and working as a high school janitor, to come to Burroughs' house pretending to be an employee of a cleaning service offering free introductory cleanups. Rhoda straightens up the place and Burroughs asks her to come back on successive weeks. He's too befuddled to figure out who she is or why for some time she doesn't tell him her name, though he writes her checks, which she fails to cash. They cheer each other up. Eventually he puts the make on her.

But there's something else. Back when the accident happened, a celestial orb appeared in the sky, as close and visible as the moon but bigger. Radio contacts are made. They show this new planet is a duplicate of Earth -- populated, it appears, with doppelgängers of all of us. All through the movie a radio voice speculates about this planetary duplication and a rapper (DJ Flava) rhymes on Earth 2, as it's being called, not without a touch of planetary-centeredness. Earth 2 is reachable by space travel and a billionaire is funding a flight out to it and calling for applications from would-be passengers. Rhoda writes a letter to the billionaire arguing that being a convicted felon actually may qualify her more than you'd think for a seat on the space ship. It's sort of like a college admission essay. Maybe it would have gotten her back into MIT.

Some admirers of Another Earth are claiming this is the very best kind of science fiction. Others say it's not really sci-fi but metaphor and philosophical ramble and exploration of the human heart. The latter argument is preferable, I'd say, because the central event isn't science fiction, given that Earth 2 hasn't a thread of scientific plausibility. If a new planet the size of Earth were somehow to enter the Solar System, it would cause cataclysmic gravitational disturbances; and it could not have just suddenly appeared like this. It certainly wouldn't just sit there all pretty and blue next to the moon as it does in this movie. Of course Earth 2 is fantasy -- the hopeless kind one might cook up if desperately unhappy with one's life on this Earth, as Rhoda and John Burroughs are. Another Earth, you see, might have them on it, but they might be happier, supposing the two planets' new proximity may have stopped their exact mirroring. Earth 2 may be a planet of happy-ending doppelgängers. But Rhoda, as a budding astrophysicist, would know Earth 2 couldn't be.

This parallel Earth idea is a variation on the fate-changing theme of such hokey movies as the Final Destination series, and highly implausible. But so is the satisfying relationship that grows up between the lying Rhoda and the gullible Burroughs. There is emotional credibility, though, in their separate depressed personalities. Though Marling hasn't given herself very many interesting lines and spends most of her time just walking around looking sad, she can pass for a traumatized super-smart person. As Burroughs William Mapother is saddled with an unbearably fraught role but brings convincing sadness to it. The confusion of both characters seems real, Burroughs lolling around, perking up to play a bit of Chopin and seduce Rhoda, Rhoda taking the train back and forth from New Haven to this suburb. Both seem, in truth, more like they're rummaging around inside their own heads than moving in real space and time.

But sympathy doesn't keep all this movie from being a tedious affair, a dark, wintry tale weighed down by portents and uncomfortable plot devices. It's got a "Twilight Zone" final shot, one that's shocking, but also obvious. It's even got a spacey older janitor at the high school (Kumar Pallana), an Indian who advises Rhoda to make her mind a blank, and then blinds himself and causes himself to be deaf. He says she'll know why. Maybe you will too. This is a sad story indeed. Its focus on two miserable people and a fantasy that can't save them leaves one unsatisfied.

Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly calls this an "arty dud" and wonders how on earth it won the Arthur P. Sloan Prize at Sundance. He categorizes it as "one of those stultifying aftermath-of-
a-car-crash movies." I'm afraid he's not far from the truth.

The film opened in US theaters July 22, 2011, September 7 in the UK.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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