Written and directed by Georgetown graduates Mike Cahill (COL ’01) and Britt Marling (COL ’05), Another Earth is a story of redemption and second chances that arrive with the discovery of another earth orbiting around ours. Dubbed “Earth 2,” the planet begins as a mysterious dot in the sky, to later appear as a full-fledged replica of earth itself. In spite of this fantastical premise, the sci-fi epic is more a backdrop than the main event, providing a canvas to the more raw and intimate personal story at hand.
Earth 2’s promise of a second chance is especially tantalizing for protagonist Rhoda Williams (Marling), a bright young woman haunted by a terrible mistake. Her plans of attending MIT to become an astrophysicist were destroyed when she killed a woman and her son in a drunk driving accident. Now, after four years in jail, Rhoda returns to her hometown, alienated completely from her former life. Returning to the bedroom of her 18 year old self, the posters of outer space and first place medals hanging on the wall, only taunt Rhoda as vestiges of her former self and what could have been.
The first 20 minutes of the film tell this backstory with hardly any dialogue, simply playing on Rhoda’s face and her expressions. Marling’s performance is imbued with great subtlety, and her pain and regret are viscerally palpable. Her fragility is underscored by Cahill’s unique cinematography. His aesthetic is intimate and warm, rendering the mundane visually beautiful albeit melancholy.
Rhoda tries to reintegrate into society and confront her mistake. She takes a janitor job at her old high school. Evoking the theme of purification and redemption, these scenes are more meditative than melodramatic; Rhoda has no self-pity, only quiet stoicism.
Seeking closure, Rhoda tries to apologize to John Burroughs (William Mapother), the husband and father of the car accident’s victims. But upon meeting him, she falters and then makes up a story about running a cleaning service. Burroughs takes her up on the offer. Once a notable composer, he is now awash in alcohol and pills, suppressing the memory of the accident. Rhoda’s lie serves to help the man she wronged, if even in a small way, but it also ends up tying the two even further in an inextricable bond.
The relationship that develops between Rhoda and John at first is awkward, but soon their chemistry becomes incandescent. Searing pain lies latent in every scene, as both are bound to each other by a painful reality. She still hasn’t told John her secret, and yet, he is falling in love with her.
Their unlikely relationship is tested when Rhoda finds out she won a contest to visit Earth 2. What’s more, scientists have discovered that the other earth is not just orbiting parallel to theirs, but it’s also identical to the first earth. According to “broken mirror theory,” the two identical worlds have the same past, but not the same present. The moment the two earths became aware of the others’ existence, the mirror was shattered. Since Earth 2 was discovered before Rhoda’s accident, it’s possible that another Rhoda and another John are living revolutionarily different lives.
The promise of a new life is exhilarating to Rhoda: She could meet another version of herself. Perhaps a version that had followed her dreams and not become sunk in the hollow of despair. And ultimately, this is the film’s main message, what it would be like to meet oneself and the metaphysics of an alternate reality.
The suspense leading up to Rhoda’s decision carries through until the last scene — a cliffhanger that leaves you both questioning and spellbound.