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Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2011

Another Earth

Mike Cahill's compelling fable for the age of science

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The new planet emerged from the night sky as a blue dot and, before science could answer any questions, swam closer to our world. Soon it grew larger than the moon in the morning sky and continued to swell in size. Unnatural and inescapable, it appeared to be the mirror image of our world—“Earth 2,” the media dubbed it. Its uncanny presence casts a shadow over the human drama of Another Earth.

Written and directed by Mike Cahill, Another Earth is a somber, cerebral meditation on the human condition framed by science-fiction elements. There are no battles for Los Angeles, no spindly alien invaders and no robots—unless you count the child's plastic toy deployed as a marker of tragedy. The only physical action is the car accident triggering the drama. In a strange synchronicity, the astronomy-obsessed teenager with a letter of acceptance from MIT, Rhoda (newcomer Brit Marling), ran drunk and head-on into a family stopped at an intersection on the night the new world first became visible. As Rhoda stumbled in shock across the glass-covered pavement toward the car she struck, she sees the pale faces of the dead behind the cracked windshield, glimpses a stuffed animal on the seat and stares at the blue dot in the sky.

After her release from prison, Rhoda, subsumed in depression and guilt, takes work as a high-school janitor in an unconscious act of penance. The low-status job separates Rhoda from her Ivy League former classmates. Discovering that the one survivor in the car she struck, a prominent composer and music professor (William Mapother), had emerged from his coma, she seeks him out to beg forgiveness. But faced with his lapse into alcohol-and-prescription-drug-sustained squalor (and grief without end), she can't bring herself to confess her identity or her guilt. A rapport develops between them, and, in another fumbling act of contrition, she becomes his house cleaner. Meanwhile, the new world hangs overhead like a ripe fruit; Rhoda enters an essay contest, hoping to win a ticket on the first flight to Earth 2 and imagining she could begin a new life.

Not everyone is as optimistic. Anxiety over evidence of intelligence on the looming planet sparks fears of war, apocalyptic paranoia on the fringes and a resigned malaise among the general public. Scientists on TV (much of the context for Another Earth is delivered through media chatter) believe Earth 2 is populated by our mirror reflections. If so, what could we find there? Could we see ourselves anew in our living mirrors, or would we, as usual, project our old selves onto the new setting?

Fans of “hard science fiction” will argue that the premise of Another Earth is impossible: A new world so close to our own would trigger all sorts of catastrophe through changes in tides and gravitation. Those are the people who might reject Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince because the boy protagonist's asteroid is too small to sustain an atmosphere. Another Earth isn't a science lesson, but rather a strangely compelling fable for the age of science.

Another Earth
is screening at the Oriental Theatre.
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