By Peggy Nelson
Another Earth – 2011 – dir. Mike Cahill
Another evening. One much like any other, cars on the road, moon in the sky. Suddenly — something else in the sky. Timelines cross, lives crash. In Another Earth, co-writers Brit Marling (who also stars) and Mike Cahill (who also directs) reflect on the reasons one might have for leaving the comforts of home and venturing into the unknown. One reason might be that home has become that unknown country, and comforts have become correspondingly few.
A new planet has appeared in the sky, very close by, almost as close as the moon. From its look and all other attempts at measurement, it is an exact duplicate of earth, with the same continents, the same weather — and perhaps, the same inhabitants? An exploratory mission is founded to find out, funded not by any one government, nor by a coalition, but by a Richard Branson-like entrepreneur in a private space mission. A number of seats on the mission are available via an essay contest: “Convince me. Tell me why you want to go…”
But the exploration of the unknown is deep background to tragic yet banal events closer to home. The night the planet finally became visible in our sky, a horrific traffic accident — perhaps caused by the teen driver gazing at the planet through the skyroof, perhaps not — takes two lives and destroys two others. The teen, Rhoda Williams, a promising astrophysics major at MIT, is jailed as a felon. The other driver, John Burroughs, was a classical musician on the Yale faculty. His wife and son are killed in the crash, and Burroughs emerges from a coma to debilitating headaches and the barest interest in survival; unable to teach, unable to compose, barely able to stay awake.
The film has a lovely world-under-glass look with poignant, art-directed vignettes. The camera lingers, and the dialogue is sparing, as if to emphasize loss, emptiness, and lives barely lived by their inhabitants. Marling, whose face reflects the luminosity of the heavens she wishes to visit, is weighted with the specific gravity of her generation’s gestures.
Rhoda is released from prison, but her hopes and dreams have collapsed in on themselves. She cannot handle being in her old room, and decamps to the attic, which she empties out except for an air mattress, a light, and a small picture of a galaxy ripped from a magazine. Not attempting to return to her studies, she gets a job as janitor at a local high school so she won’t have to “deal with people.” She shuffles through the halls and cleans things, expressionless, her movie-star blond hair stuffed under a nondescript sock hat.
She does have a laptop, however, which she uses to peek at the space contest, and to google-stalk her former victim. Apparently denied web access in prison, we look over her shoulder as she reads up on just who she crashed into, and what damage was done. Soon enough, she is stalking him in real life, with the well-meaning yet ill-advised intent of explaining and apologizing.
Burroughs (William Mapother), lives in an old-looking Colonial near a river, or the shore. The architectural lines of the house speak history, but the state of things inside indicates that history has ended, at least for the current inhabitant. Answering the door in a watch cap, he can barely focus from the midst of his migraine on his unexpected and unwanted visitor. Her rehearsed apology evaporates. Instead, Rhoda invents a personal house-cleaning business with an introductory offer for potential new clients. With that, she manages to talk herself inside, where she is met with a mountain of debris that would rankle Rumplestiltskin. “You can start in there,” the migrained monster grunts. And so, she does.
As she returns to clean the house bit by bit, Burroughs revives, taking a slight interest in her, and cautiously returning to his music. Rhoda seems to put aside thoughts of confessing, working through her debt instead with kitchen gloves and elbow grease. Back at home, she writes an essay to the space contest: “…most of the early explorers were felons, criminals, lost individuals desperate to escape the futility of their lives, and a society that had, perhaps rightfully, rejected them…”
One day, she goes too far. She washes a sweater that was Burroughs’s last connection to the scent of his wife. His reactive explosion tumbles the house of cards that was Rhoda’s tentatively rebuilt personality, and she flees.
He tracks her down. In one of the most beautiful scenes in the film, he performs a new composition — on the musical saw (composed by Scott Munson, and performed on the soundtrack by musical saw maestro Natalia Paruz). The haunting frequencies hint that the people who really want to get away are the ones who have little left to leave. Space flight becomes less a phallic thrust into knowledge acquisition, and more an escape from overwhelming loss; a giant leap into the unending, depopulated, and inhuman, emptiness of space. Rhoda receives word from the Another Earth mission. She got in.
Another Earth owes a debt to Andrei Tarkovsky; certainly to his leisurely and beautiful cinematography, but also to his philosophical meditations. In such films as Solaris and Stalker, Tarkovsky assays the incredible yet deceptive power of our hopes and dreams. What is another earth in the sky but a metaphor for what we inchoately wish for here? What do we hope to find when all our dreams come true? What exactly are those dreams, anyway?
The terror of articulation is maintained throughout this film, as the “monster,” the other earth in the sky, is never shown, except from our limited perspective on this earth. Is it growing bigger? Are there transmissions from its inhabitants? Or is the other earth a reflection — a trick of desire, technology, sunspots, or the weather — and perhaps not really there at all?