Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Guest Review: Another Earth (2011)

A Film Review by Tennessee Jed

This “indie” production is the first feature film collaboration between director Mike Cahill, and his long time friend, actress Brit Marling. They met while studying at Georgetown University, and co-produced and co-wrote Another Earth. Cahill directs, edits, and does cinematography while Marling takes lead acting responsibility. Made on a shoestring budget, the film received critical audience acclaim at the Sundance Festival, winning a distribution deal with Fox Searchlight Pictures. Largely unknown, this is an interesting film on several levels. Particularly noteworthy is the acting debut of Brit Marling. I unhesitatingly recommend this one, so letʼs discuss why, and review both strengths and weaknesses.

** spoiler alert **

The Plot - Rhoda Williams (Marling) is a high school senior celebrating early acceptance into M.I.T.ʼs astrophysics program. After drinks with some friends, she starts her drive home, and hears on the radio that a new previously “hidden” planet has been discovered, appears to be moving closer to Earth, and is visible to the naked eye in the evening. While sticking her head out the window to try and spot it, she crashes into John Burroughs (William Mapother) who is driving home with his family. His pregnant wife and child are both killed instantly, and he lapses into a coma. Instead of heading off to M.I.T., Rhoda finds herself a convicted felon sentenced to nearly four years in jail.
The story quickly jumps ahead to her release as she returns home to live with her parents and younger brother. Profoundly changed by the experience, Rhoda takes a job as a school janitor to limit her contact with others. She learns that Burroughs had been a music professor at Yale University and highly regarded composer.

Attempting to work through her guilt, Rhoda visits the crash scene on the 4th anniversary of the accident, and sees Burroughs (recovered from his coma) leave a toy as a memorial. Later, she is compelled to visit his home to try to apologize, but when he opens the door, she is unable to summon the courage to do so, instead claiming to be an employee of a maid service offering a free trial cleaning. At first, John refuses, but reconsiders, given that his house represents a drunken disaster of trash and empty liquor bottles. Clearly he too is still coping with enormous grief. After seeing the great job she does, he reluctantly agrees to let her come once a week.

At this point, just as the story seems headed in an all too predictable dramatic direction, another concurrent plot-line begins to take shape. The new planet with its moon now dominates the sky. Evidently it is not merely similar to earth, but an actual mirror image. Whenever Rhoda is not working, she is transfixed by the object that caused her life to change so dramatically. As national news networks carry a live feed, Dr. Joan Talis (Diane Ciesla), a government scientist, attempts to contact potential life forms there. The entire world is shocked when she not only receives a vocal reply, but the response is apparently from Dr. Talis herself. This information raises the potential specter of the “other” earth as some kind of parallel universe existing adjacent to our own. Speculation begins immediately as to whether everyone on our earth has a corresponding “duplicate” on the other. A wealthy entrepreneur sponsors a mission to the other earth, and promises to take along the winner of an essay contest about why the writer wishes to go. Of course, Rhoda writes an essay and enters.

While that plot thread moves forward, Rhoda and John continue to build their relationship, gradually realizing they have each made the other smile and laugh again. Soon, things escalate to a more romantic and physical level. Inevitably, Rhoda learns she has been chosen as the winner of the essay contest, and rushes to tell John. He immediately toasts her stating “to your most improbable dream coming true,” then decides to cook her a celebratory dinner. After dinner, realizing how much he cares for her, John pleads with Rhoda to stay with him and not go to the other world. In what is perhaps the most emotional moment in the movie, she explains why she cannot remain, and finally confesses her true identity. However, to find out how this all ultimately plays out, you will need to either see the film or seek out a review that spills the beans.

Strengths - The two main characters are believable and sell the story. Enough credibility straining plot holes exist to potentially sink this film were it not for the superb performance of the two lead actors. Mapother is a character actor with recognizable, memorable facial features. Heʼs best known for In the Bedroom, and as a recurring character on Lost. By drawing from his own experience and talking with people who have had similar experiences, his interpretation of John Burroughs feels very real.

Brit Marling is nothing short of amazing in her debut performance and credits her work as co-writer for allowing her to “become the character”. I had been greatly impressed by Jennifer Lawrence in the film Winterʼs Bone, but must state Marling is equally impressive here. Perhaps the fact neither was well known at the time of release adds to their credibility, but I expect to see a continuation of good things in the future from both Marling and Lawrence.

A second positive is that the film is devoid of political agenda themes that make many of todayʼs films distasteful. The story was developed from a conversation between Cahill and Marling about what it would actually be like to encounter a true Doppleganger. From this, they slowly developed their story, one which is ultimately hopeful.
The final major strength is the integration of two very different genreʼs into a single film. The underlying story is a fairly standardized drama about how two people sharing a common tragedy relate to each other; the second is a science fantasy about parallel realities, dopplegangers, and how it might actually feel to meet or at least see yourself from the outside as others see you. Alone, these themes are hardly unique, but the combination of the two creates a nice twist that elevates the plot above the mundane and helps prevent it from descending to the level of cliché.

Weaknesses - The plot is, to say the least, highly improbable, and the science behind the duplicate planet is not at all well explained. While I did find this bothersome to an extent, I again point out that the skill of the two actors really shines through in selling their story, allowing the viewer to largely overlook the issue. I tend to agree with one reviewer who likened the story to an episode of Twilight Zone. Viewers of that series rarely had any problem suspending belief if the storyline itself was otherwise sufficiently engaging.

Cinematography, as might be expected, looks low budget. They couldnʼt afford elaborate sets or gaffers. But after viewing the special feature on the Blu-Ray disc where Cahill and Marling discuss the problems they faced, my appreciation is raised for the solutions they found. There are many views of the planet in the sky above New Haven—almost too many. I found myself thinking “o.k., I get it, thatʼs your big effect; now show me something different.”

I also found the romance that developed between John and Rhoda too predictable, almost inevitable, and as such, slightly off-putting. Had the film makers not added the twist of the duplicate planet, I would not have enjoyed it nearly as much despite the great acting.

Conclusion - As a first effort, it was nice to see these young film makers achieve some critical (if not financial) success. The film ends abruptly and leaves plenty of room for the viewer to ponder where the story might lead if it had continued. If you havenʼt seen it, at only 90 minutes, it should be well worth your time. Sound of My Voice, Marlingʼs second effort was released earlier this year, and after reading some reviews and seeing this film, I canʼt wait to see it. These are the films that keep my interest in movies alive.

30 comments:

Tennessee Jed said...

Something has come up, and I have to be out this morning so if you don't hear back on a comment until this afternoon, I'm not ignoring you and will catch up as quickly as possible.

Tennessee Jed said...

as it turns out, I was able to resolve things more quickly than anticipated, and am back

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Thanks for an excellent review! I remember seeing an ad for this once, but I think only once. And I do have a question. If I remember correctly, they really billed this mainly as a romance. How much sci-fi are we talking about? It sounds like if they go to this other planet, they just barely get there at the end?

ScottDS said...

I remember being intrigued by the trailers but I haven't watched the film yet. I also had no idea this was Brit Marling's first film. Maybe it's just me but I see an actor's name and it rarely occurs to me that I've never heard the name before. Brit Marling? As far as I'm concerned, she was always acting. I don't know, it's weird. :-)

Oddly, another movie about a duplicate Earth was released last year: Lars von Trier's Melancholia. Talk about your downer movies! Both films seem to be similar in that the second Earth story is more of a backdrop than anything else, though Melancholia doesn't focus on doppelgangers and parallel universes - it is strictly about a very depressed woman who's almost comforted by the world's impending destruction.

I guess that's von Trier for you.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - I honestly can't say how it was billed. It won a minor award at Sundance and received a small distribution deal ($1.5 -$2 million) I think it virtually went straight to video.

My own personal belief is that it is more like a short story that a Hitchcock or Rod Sirling might have adapted. If you are looking for a film about space travel, this is not that film. I do think it raises great questions about meeting your doppleganger and what that would be like. Questions such as "how might my life have turned out differently if this or that had not occured?"

One reviewer mentioned that this film works partly because it is played straight up rather than, say, a David Lynch film where you are left to wonder whether the whole thing is a dream fantasy used by Rhonda to pass the time while in prison. That clearly is one way the writers could have gone, but I'm glad they didn't.

Interestingly, Marling's next movie "Sound of My Voice" shares certain similarities in that she plays the head of a small cult predicting the end of earth, while she claims she is from the future. There, the issue is the viewer has to determine whether she is crazy or actually from the future.

Tennessee Jed said...

Scott - the Czech film you mention seems to share elements of both Marling's films which were made in 2010 and 2011. While the character studies in both seem paramount, I would say Another Earth is much the more uplifting (admitting I have not seen Melancholita.) As I mentioned to Andrew, this film could easily have gone that way. Sounds as if von Trier may have a bit of David Lynch in him as well.

ScottDS said...

Yeah, von Trier's film isn't exactly uplifting. You can probably get by without seeing it. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, But does it actually get into the science fiction part or is it all just these people wondering about the other world?

Tennessee Jed said...

Scott - as you can tell from my review, I am a bit more bullish on this one; I think you would enjoy it.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - I think I see this as more of a science fantasy than true science fiction. There is no big budget for space travel scenes, BUT I will say MORE is depicted than just people "wondering" about the other earth. Whether or not that is due to budget constraints, I couldn't say. I am probably hesitant to give away too much more of the ending, because I think viewing enjoyment of this particular tale is increased if one doesn't exactly know how it ends.

The romance angle is, as I mentioned, a bit off putting in and of itself. At the same time, I think what the two actors do in showing how the emotional pain of the accident and it's aftermath impacts the two principals is both very convincing and compelling. That part alone made the film worth viewing for me, but adding in the specter of the alternate earth and what that ultimately means to these two people in pain brings it all up a few notches above the ordinary. When I couple that with the fact this is essentially a first time effort, I was impressed enough to recommend one's time investment.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I will take your recommendation and see it! :)

T-Rav said...

I vaguely remember hearing about this movie or seeing a couple ads for it, but nothing beyond that. Seems like an interesting concept, although I suspect I would spend too much time worrying out the science part of it to fully enjoy the rest.

As far as Melancholia goes, I haven't seen that either, but Von Trier is such a weirdo the fact that he directed pretty much kills any interest I would have in seeing it.

tryanmax said...

Sounds like a winner. I'll try to see this.

Tennessee Jed said...

Rav - try not to think of it as a science fiction film. Think of it as more of a 90 minute expanded episode of Twilight Zone:

submitted for your approval, Mr Rav (lol)! I had a little of the same reaction, but as I mentioned to Andrew, the acting of Marling and Mapother draws you into the underlying character study story, and the reality of a Doppleganger doesn't really come to fruition until the very end

Tennessee Jed said...

Thanks, Max - I really enjoyed it myself. I would never try to sell this as the perfect film, but thought as somebody's maiden effort made without any budget it was very thought provoking with more to like than dislike. When I think of all the big budget corporate crappola coming out of Hollywood, it gives me hope their is still some creativity left out there. And, as I mentioned, I really think Brit Marling will go places. This will give you the opportunity to say "yeah I remember her very first starring role in a feature film a few years back." :)

T-Rav said...

I would feel much better about the future of Hollywood if its young female leads were of the caliber of Marling and Lawrence, and not...some others I shall not name in order to be charitable.

Tennessee Jed said...

I know what you mean, Rav. But it isfilms like this, and actors like those two who keep me hopeful.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav and Jed, Although I haven't seen this film yet, I know what you mean. It is little gems like this which keep Hollywood afloat in my opinion because without them, everything else is just blockbuster depressing.

Tennessee Jed said...

I think that is a good way of putting it. I actually seek out the small independent films. Some of them simply don't work, and then there are films like Another Earth that, while far from perfect, actually do remind you that film making is an art. In that respect, it's the difference between an artist and an illustrator.

ellenB said...

Jed, Excellent review. I saw this recently as well and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Tennessee Jed said...

thanks, Ellen! I agree, this is an enjoyable film, even overcoming some built in obstacles to do so.

Doc Whoa said...

Jed, An excellent review. And while I haven't seen the film, you've piqued my interest. When I first heard about this, I thought it was a romance, but it sounds like a good deal more. Thanks!

Tennessee Jed said...

Thanks Doc, I appreciate that. It is a largely unknown movie that I enjoyed which is why I decided to review it. I don't want to give the impression that a traditional romance is not a part of this movie. It is, and frankly I found that to be the biggest weakness of the film. The notion of a woman who kills a man's wife and child later becoming romantically involved is pretty predictable. What permits this one to work well are the two factors I mentioned. 1) the actors make the characters believable and do a great job of reflecting the very different kind of pain they were in as a result of the accident. 2) The notion of a mirror earth out there inhabited by a version of all of us. What would they be like. Must they live the exact same life? What would it be like to meet them? . . . and so on. This is a different twist which, when coupled with the quality of the actors, made me enjoy the film.

Floyd R. Turbo said...

I'll have to check that out.

Melancholia is the most intentionally nihilistic -- unrelentingly nihilistic -- movie I have ever seen. Bonnie and Clyde is a Jesus movie compared to it. von Trier's planet is going to destroy the Earth -- there's no Bizarro world aspect to it.

This sounds like sci-fi like The Pilot's Wife is sci-fi, but I don't need scientific plausibility if the story is otherwise good.

Individualist said...

Tennessee

Great Review...

I saw this film in the theater, it is very unusual.

Tennessee Jed said...

Floyd - It would be a misnomer to call this film science fiction, but it does share elements closely akin to it. The IMBD didn't even tag it as such, but in the end, people can get too hung up on labels. I think the film could have very easily slipped into being one major cliche, particularly for relative newcomers. The fact that it, at least in my opinion, rose above being a cliche, says a lot for the actors and writers. I wanted to get bothered by testing the plausibility of the science, but in the end, I found myself more enjoying what was good.

On the other hand, I would hate to build up expectations to a level where people are invariably disappointed. Again, I go back to characters and a storyline that could really have been dark, slow, and boring--but it wasn't. The issues raised are interesting to think about, but ultimately the film doesn't try to be more than it is; a quality I always think is important in film making.

Tennessee Jed said...

Indie - thanks, I appreciate your kind words. Wow, I think it is neat you saw it in the theater. As might be expected, this film really did minimal box office, under 2 million, as I recall. The fact that it is unusual is one of the characteristics that make it worthwhile, I think.

LawHawkRFD said...

Tennessee: Sorry, I was gone all afternoon and evening yesterday and am just now getting to your review. Sounds like a great concept with some fine acting. I'll have to watch for the movie to show up on cable or NetFlix it.

Tennessee Jed said...

Thanks, Hawk. If this had merely been a story of girl accidentally kills man's family, hides her identity, they fall in love, he finds out, becomes enraged, but love ultimately conquers all, it would have been a well acted disappointment.

Fortunately, that is NOT this movie, and that is not what happens, although it easily could have gone there There is enough of a twist to make it more interesting than that and make me think these two (particularly the actress) are capable of more and better things to come.

Tennessee Jed said...

BTW, the DVD has been out a while and since this had no marketing budget, I suspect netflicks is the better way to go.

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