Aug. 24 2011 12:00 AM

‘Another Earth’: Heavenly bodies, heavy hearts


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 inhabitants.

“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,

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’
Now showing at NCG Eastwood Cinemas, 2500 Showtime Dr., Lansing
(517) 316-9100