Sunday, July 31, 2011

Another Earth

Mike Cahill's "Another Earth" feels sort of tossed off. Maybe that was because the film got rushed for Sundance (if so, that decision paid off handsomely with a Special Jury Prize). Even if that wasn't the case, I wish Cahill had gotten more of a sense of what his movie was about. He has two winning actors in Brit Marling (his fellow screenwriter on the project) and William Mapother, and he and Marling have a potentially stimulating idea in having an exact copy of the Earth appear and be open to scientific and popular speculation. But they hardly explore what it really means to have another planet right there in the sky. I'm pretty sure tidal movements would be totally screwed up, not to mention orbits and all that jazz. We get the invasion angle, and the "what can that me tell me about me" angle (as humans are the same on that planet as well), but not really any satisfactory depth. It's woven into the plot in a way that makes sense, but at the same time it would have been cool to actually know more about it, instead of just having newsspeak thrown at us. And although I know the ending fits in with the processes of science and is somewhat sound on a thematic level, it feels rather like a cop-out, especially since a lot of great fiction has the protagonist eventually experience the mystery at the center of the plot, and as a result we do too. Not here.

As for what I experienced when I watched "Another Earth": I'm from the area where "Another Earth" is set and was shot, and perhaps I might have been more into the film if I hadn't been so distracted by the locations (Truffaut was right when he said that watching a film in a place you're familiar with is hard). Nonetheless, we plunge into the action in the suburbs of New Haven, as Rhoda Williams (Marling) drinks to celebrate her getting into MIT and then drives and, while taking her eyes off the road to take a look at the other Earth (as a radio broadcaster, DJ Flava, chimes in, one of the film's finest details), gets into a fatal crash where only she and the driver of the other car survive (a wife and a son are killed). This leads to her imprisonment (and thus her not going to college), which sends her into a state of intense depression (long walks and laying down in the snow naked are not out of the question), still hanging on her when she gets out four years later.

Working a menial job far below her possible trajectory, she goes to try to get the forgiveness of the other driver, a composer and ex-Yale-professor named John Burroughs (Mapother), but instead keeps quiet about the accident and atones in a different way, by cleaning his extremely messy house. The two are initially distanced, but they bond over Wii Boxing and discussions of the other planet. Soon, though, they do share profound things, like music played with a bow on a saw (not feasible, seemingly, but who knows?*) and an anecdote about a cosmonaut. You can see where this is going, but the tropes that the film employs sometimes do work, mostly do to the work of the leads. ALL of the actors in the film are superior to the script with which they are supplied. Better writing could have led to a great success.

There are scenes that really work, but as a whole, the film has trouble with justifying its existence. In retrospect, it just barely does, but there are sections of the film that don't go far in giving the film any point (other than the somewhat shallow notion of "can I learn from me"; I'm more interested in the film's idea of "how would I confront me"). Ultimately, "Another Earth" is not really in the right hands, and as a result lacks the muscle and cohesion it takes to tell a story like this. C+

*I learn from @SawLady on Twitter: "Playing music on a saw is totally possible." Here's the link she provided to the NYC Musical Saw Festival, an amazing-sounding event. Also, if you want to know what the fuss is about regarding the saw in this film, go here to the other link she gave.

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