March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Moody 'Another Earth' combines stark drama with elements of science-fiction


Friday, Aug. 19 — The discovery of another planet identical to our own is the
starting point for director Mike Cahill’s “Another Earth,” a moody drama that’s
not so much science-fiction as it is an in-depth character study. Instead of
concentrating on what’s out there in the cosmos, the screenplay by Cahill and
star Brit Marling points its telescope instead at the human heart.

Marling, in a performance of impressive subtlety and quiet
power, plays Rhoda Williams, a New England teenager who dreams of traveling to
the stars until a horrendous accident changes the course of her life. While everyone
around her marvels at the possibilities of a parallel planet, Rhoda struggles
to put her own world back together and to deal with former classmates who give
her strange looks and don’t know exactly how to talk to her.

Eventually, fate brings Rhoda back to music professor John
Burroughs (William Mapother), who was also involved in the tragedy. Like Rhoda,
he has been completely devastated by what happened; he now spends his time
sitting around his deteriorating salt-box house, dwelling on the past and not
giving a thought to the future. He does, however, wonder about the
possibilities of Earth 2, which seems to be inhabited by carbon copies of the Earth’s

“I can’t stop thinking about it — another me up there,” he
tells Rhoda.

“If you met yourself, what would you say?” Rhoda asks. As it
turns out, the question is not entirely hypothetical.

Cahill has shot the film mostly in cold, harsh colors and
blue-gray tones that echo the chilly, drizzly weather that Rhoda and John must
continually slog through. The rough rack-focus shots and sometimes jittery
camerawork are appropriate for a story built around shattered souls, and so is
the inventive score by Fall On Your Sword, which mixes electronic bleeps and
blips with bursts of choral music in a combination that’s strangely seductive.

Marling and Mapother’s straightforward, unfiltered emotions
are like the cracked walls and peeling paint in John’s home: impossible to
overlook. The yearning in Mapother’s eyes and the desire for acceptance in
Marling’s are heartbreaking.

There is so much that works in “Another Earth” that it’s
slightly disappointing that the story has to build up to one of those “big
revelations” that will completely rearrange John and Rhoda’s situations once
again. The beauty of Cahill and Marling’s writing is in the incisive little
details and unexpected allusions they include (John’s comparison of the
discovery of Earth 2 to Plato’s allegory about the cave; the similarities
between United Space Ventures CEO and pitchman Keith Harding and Virgin
CEO/showman Richard Branson, etc.).

Although the new planet is always in the background
(sometimes literally), the drama is primarily grounded in Rhoda and John’s
increasingly intimate interactions. The contrast between the film’s fantastic
elements and the painful healing process both of them are going through drives
the film, and it’s not impossible to imagine “Another Earth” working quite well
as a small-scale theater piece. Who needs special effects when you’ve got a
couple of truly special performances?

"Another Earth" is now playing exclusively at NCG Eastwood Cinemas.