The science fictional premise of Another Earth (2011, directed by Mike Cahill) isn't unique. The notion of a duplicate planet orbiting the sun in the same orbital path as Earth appeared on movie screens way back in 1969's Journey to the Far Side of the Sun and even before that in the pages of the science fiction magazines of the 1940s and 50s. What Another Earth does with this concept, however, is very much of a piece with the science fiction new wave, in which sci fi high concepts are used to examine the interior of the human mind and heart. This isn't "sense of wonder" stuff. Indeed, it plays like an artifact of late capitalism, full of defeat and desperation. I like to think that this is the corner being turned on cinematic speculative fiction away from eye-drugging fantasies of destruction into a more humane idiom. I can be a foolish utopian sometimes.
The story here follows Rhoda Williams, a bright young woman who has just been accepted to MIT. Rhoda is interested in astronomy and on the way home from a rowdy graduation party, hears news of a new planet visible in the sky. She cranes her head out the window of her car to catch a glimpse and plows into another car. The other car is driven by John Burroughs, an Ivy League music professor and composer, and his family. His family is killed, but he survives. Rhoda goes to jail for four years and when she gets out, she screws up her courage to go face him and offer her apologies, but loses her nerve at the last minute and instead poses as a cleaning woman. They get to know each other, get to share the other's pain, become involved with each other. Meanwhile, the other Earth hangs in the sky, a mirror image of our own Earth, suggesting alternate lives and alternate realities. Rhoda wants to visit the other Earth and enters a contest to do just that. Has her other self made the same mistakes? What would you say to such a person. Can some wrongs ever be forgiven?
Like I say, this is a gazing ball into the human heart, though it's a particularly gloomy and heartsick view. This perception is amplified by the way the film is shot, with its meandering camera and wintery light and mournful classical and techno score. This helps to dull the fact that this has the structure of a mundane romantic comedy, in which Rhoda's deception might be expected to result in hijinks rather than heartbreak. The film largely eschews a tripod or a dolly for handheld cinematography that further distances it from conventional Hollywood narratives, though the handheld indie films it resembles are another kind of cliche, I guess. This is all necessary, because otherwise, the film would spin off into its own premise. The other Earth isn't even a Maguffin, so much as it is a leitmotif, or perhaps a kind of omnipresent memento of how life might be after making other choices.
The movie largely belongs to Brit Marling, who co-wrote the screenplay and plays Rhoda. She's in practically every scene--hell, she's in practically every shot--and she stands up to the camera's scrutiny. She could be a movie star, if she wants, but she's a mover behind the camera, too, so who knows where this movie will point her. William Mapother fares less well as Burroughs, given a role that lets him mope and be irascible, but he and Marling are believable in their scenes together. The movie gives them some good scenes, too, particularly one in which Burroughs shows Rhoda how he plays a saw and another in which a she eventually tells him who she is and what she did. The scene in which a SETI scientists contacts the other Earth and finds herself talking to herself is also memorable. Doppelgangers are not nearly so sinister in this movie as they are in horror movies, but it's a scene of Twilight Zone-ish dislocation none the less. So, too, is the film's final shot, which closes the film on a striking note of ambiguity.