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.