Another Earth is a high-concept failure. Director Mike Cahill and co-writer Brit Marling struggle in vain to foreground the thematic significance of their film’s novel main conceit. In their film, a second Earth—that is, an identical planet to Earth as we know it—suddenly appears in the orbit of the film’s native planet Earth. Cahill and Marling don’t have original or even exciting ideas to present, just C-movie insights about survivors’ guilt that happen to revolve around a cool science-fiction premise. But the film’s plot doesn’t really to do much with this alternate planet, a fact that has since made viewers rather upset because, well, just look at that title. Trust me: The lack of sci-fi-ness is the least of Another Earth’s problems.
We meet the aimless pretty young thing Rhoda Williams (Marling herself) after she gets into a car accident and accidentally kills the wife and child of composer John Burroughs (William Mapother). This is Soap Opera 101-level plotting. The car crash turns Rhoda into a distant zombie, and after moving home to her parents’ place she wanders around her hometown in her precious little gray hoody and tries to glean as much information about what happened to John and his family as she can. She even insinuates herself into John’s life by posing as a representative of a house-cleaning agency. Meanwhile, as she vacuums her victim’s floor, John putters around the house morosely, drinking, wearing a funny ski hat, moving jerkily around the house (he looks like Frankenstein’s monster just went on a bender—while wearing a funny ski hat). He eventually comes out of his stupor long enough to notice Rhoda and eventually the two bond.
Histrionic quirk governs Another Earth’s otherwise dour but blandly inoffensive proceedings. The worst cast-off example of the film’s characteristic insensitivity is undoubtedly Purdeep (Wes Anderson regular Kumar Pallana), a colleague of Rhoda’s at her real job as a high school janitor. Purdeep’s depression rivals Rhoda’s own, but he handles it in even worse fashion than she does: To numb the pain of living on the bottom-most rung of society, Purdeep tries to blind himself by dousing his eyes with bleach. “He said he was tired of seeing himself everywhere,” says Rhoda’s uncomprehending boss.
At this point, you may wonder if Cahill and Marling have ever talked to a human being in their entire lives. Several other scenes only reinforce this concern. Just look at the way they film the pivotal scene where Rhoda and John finally really connect and help each other get over their collective survivor’s guilt with a little sexual healing. The scene starts with Mapother doing a fantastic Tom Noonan impression by asking Rhoda, “Can I take you somewhere and show—show you something?” He asks this and she’s standing outside his car, stunned, mouth slightly agape (no, really). Don’t get the wrong impression: He just wants to play some music for her—for the moment. “Right now?” “Yeah.” “I have to help my mom out—” “Please?” Then a shot of Mapother hunched over, looking up from the driver’s seat off-camera. “Come with me?” She reluctantly agrees and gets in the car. Her body language makes it seem as if she’s being punished and sent to the principal’s office after having put thumbtacks on a peer’s chair.
And the best part about this scene: He’s going to play his saw for her. As in the kind you use to cut logs and tree branches and things in half with. John uses this woodshop implement as a musical instrument, playing it with a violin bow. This is the saw that Rhoda previously stumbled on while cleaning his apartment. The one he uses to make music with. So he’s a musical prodigy that thinks everything is music.
But unlike a young Frank Zappa, who actually did at one time earnestly make music with bicycle spokes and playing cards on The Steve Allen Show, John is supposed to be a normal guy. He’s in newspapers. He’s somebody people recognize at this point, not a naïve, young freak who has no idea why people are laughing at him because he thinks making music with a bicycle, or in this case a saw, is just, uh, eccentric. But John does it anyway. And it’s supposed to be quirky but soulful. For Rhoda, John’s music conjures up news footage of astronauts in space.
And then they have sex while mournful music plays. And it’s all because he showed her the raw emotional power of his saw-playing. What planet are these people on, exactly?
Presumably, on the bizarro planet where Another Earth’s drama isn’t just portentous and inexpert bathos, it’s not ridiculous to hear Harding, an eccentric millionaire that holds a contest for civilians to visit Earth 2, gives Rhoda a pep talk wherein he tells her that he thinks being a felon and a millionaire are pretty much the same thing: “But it’s a fine line between the two. And finer than you would think.” (Spoiler ahead.) Or how about when, after Rhoda wins the contest, and we’re shown the hard ticket she’s given for her flight into outer space. And clearly written on the ticket is “Group A.” As in, there are multiple boarding groups for a trip into space. Life must be incredibly dull on the alternate Earth where Another Earth isn’t a ludicrous, imaginatively stunted melodrama. Thank goodness we’re here and not there.
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