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Another Screenplay Could Save Another Earth

  • Jeffrey Huston Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2011 7 Jul
  • COMMENTS
Another Screenplay Could Save <i>Another Earth</i>

Release Date: July 22, 2011 (limited); July 29, 2011 (wider)
Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual references, language, and smoking)
Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama
Run Time: 92 min.
Director:  Mike Cahill
Actors: Brit Marling, William Mapother

As a lauded prize-winner at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, Another Earth held the promise of joining 2009’s philosophically and morally dense Moon as another challenging entry in the low-fi sci-fi indie subgenre. Unfortunately, despite an arresting idea and admirable execution, the experiment fails. The problem: Another Earth needs another screenplay.

The title is literally explanatory: another Earth appears as a blue dot in the distant heavens of our galaxy. Over a four-year period (which passes with an early title card “Four Years Later”) it has slowly moved much closer to our own planet. In that time, while contact still has not been made, enough has been observed to determine that it is a planet identical to our own in every way, possibly down to having duplicate versions of every person on our earth.

Setting aside the gaping black hole in the science of this premise (i.e. the opposing gravitational forces would result in a catastrophic event that would likely destroy both worlds—but seriously, who cares, it’s just a movie), the concept is a great idea and, as the film plays out, serves as a striking metaphor about being forced to confront ourselves and what we’ve done. That it’s concerned with our own personal sins and struggles rather than some tedious sermon about global warming (it never even goes there) is also to its credit. 

It’s too bad, then, that the movie doesn’t know what to do with itself other than resort to boilerplate melodrama. The sci-fi premise is really just on the existential periphery of this tale about John Burroughs (William Mapother, TV’s Lost), a man suffering from the loss of his family, and the guilt of Rhoda (newcomer Brit Marling), the young woman who caused it. It’s Rhoda’s story, really, as it lives in the conflict between her fascination with the cosmos and the burden of her irresponsible (though accidental) actions.

As if lifted from a “How To . . .” Screenwriting 101 formula, the dynamic between these two troubled souls is simplistic and rote, resorting to a narrative arc and situations within that arc that we’ve seen regurgitated many times before. She’s wracked with guilt, he’s fallen into a reclusive depression, and as the cause of this man’s pain she now wants to be the cure. Not knowing her identity, John does not recognize Rhoda under her pretense as a volunteer cleaning lady, which she uses as her “in” to his life. 

We know where this is going—from acquaintance to friendship to lovers—right down to the inevitable revelation of the truth to John long after it should’ve been given. Predictability isn’t the worst of its problems, though; the stilted dramatics are, with dialogue so clunky and moments of connection so cheesy that this core relationship becomes a liability to the film’s higher ambitions.

Marling’s angst-ridden melancholy feels sincere as she delivers a fairly compelling performance, but Mapother isn’t nearly as believable in his character’s skin (probably because John is so thinly written in broad strokes), and as a result their supposed emotional attraction lacks chemistry. We see where the relationship is going but we never buy that it’s where these two would actually go. No amount of shaky digital camera work can authenticate the heavily-contrived plotting.

Consequently, Another Earth is a great idea with little to say. All of the correct narrative beats are there but the actual fleshing out of those core points is amateurish, and occasionally downright embarrassing. It poses some interesting questions and hypotheticals (like “What if the experience of internal dialogue with yourself could literally become external?”), but then never answers or even explores them. Rhoda’s voiced-over philosophical musings are empty and uninspiring, and only the occasional scientist talking-head on a nearby TV or radio offers up a thought worthy of contemplation.

While the elementary script by co-writers Marling and Mike Cahill labors and strains toward something of emotional (even spiritual) import, it’s Cahill’s stylistic instincts as a director and editor that salvage the weak material to make it worthwhile, even intermittently fascinating. He may not know how to write a good story but he knows how to tell one. 

The film’s somber and pensive tone is the right one to strike, plus it’s consistently held and effectively crescendos. The result is a debut feature that reveals a raw talent. For now, Cahill lacks the depth and insight to be a good writer but shows a lot of promise as a filmmaker; hopefully future efforts (and better scripts) will help him fulfill it.

Another Earth abides in that atmosphere between Good and Bad called Interesting.  Its story and characters won’t provoke you to consider life (or our place in the universe) in a new way, but the intrigue of its fantastical premise, ambient tone and clever resolution just might.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content: Wine is consumed, some drunkenness; A character makes a reference to getting high; Prescription drugs are abused; A man drinks by himself at home, for the purpose of getting drunk; A teenage girl gets drunk at a party; Champagne is consumed at a party, no drunkenness.
  • Language/Profanity: Two of “God” as exclamation, but no other profanities; A radio DJ makes a few mild sexual innuendos on a couple of occasions.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: A woman disrobes outside in the moonlight; she is briefly seen in silhouette from behind after disrobing; A man and woman kiss passionately, disrobe, and make love (no nudity is shown).
  • Violence: A violent car accident that occurs suddenly; A child and pregnant woman are killed; The driver of the other car is bloodied; Wreckage of the post-crash is seen, including the dead mother in her seat; The child is seen face-down, having been thrown from the vehicle; A woman is attacked by a man violently, choking her.