Worlds Collide

'Another Earth' proves yet again that small, low-budget films can pack a wallop

Another Earth is being marketed as a science-fiction film, and that could sell some extra tickets. However, the film shouldn't need the help, and while it's true that there is one major element of the movie that is sci-fi, that is not the engine that drives this low-budget affair.

More than anything, this is a thoroughly detailed forbidden-love story, albeit one that includes a mirror image of our planet seemingly on a collision course with Earth. Oddly enough, this is not the only 2011 film with an alternate Earth at its center; Lars von Trier's Melancholia utilizes the same springboard, and will be in theaters later this year.

There is no sophisticated explanation for how the carbon copy wound up in our solar system, nor why it is approaching so swiftly. Its very existence was discovered four years before most of the action in the film, and by the time Another Earth wraps up so beautifully, it appears to be closer than the moon. All we know is that it appeared, and that a private company is looking for volunteers to visit the other planet, since the belief is that everything about the second Earth is identical to our own—the same people and places, and probably even the same crappy reality shows.

One volunteer is Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling). She was a standout high school student on her way to MIT until the night of the interstellar discovery. Distracted as she tried to spot the planet in the night sky, Rhoda kept her eyes off the road too long and plowed directly into another car stopped at a red light. She escaped mostly unharmed, but the passengers in the other car were not so lucky. Two were killed: the wife and son of composer John Burroughs (William Mapother), who was seriously injured but survived.

After serving a four-year sentence for vehicular manslaughter, Rhoda begins to piece her life together again. She enters the essay contest to be a crew member aboard the spacecraft that will visit the other planet, tapping into her own story of grief and regret. Rhoda also makes an effort to apologize to John, although when that time comes, and she sees a man who has crumbled after the death of his family, Rhoda concocts a story about working for a cleaning service, because he needs as much help as she does. John doesn't recognize her; since her crime occurred while she was a minor, her name was never released.

Over several weeks, the two broken souls begin to talk to each other, but never about the one thing there is to talk about. Then a relationship blossoms, although whether it is true love or misery finding company is debatable.

There are no other characters of note outside of Rhoda and John, even less so when the intensity of their relationship and the inevitability of its conclusion picks up. We know what Rhoda knows and what John does not, and that eventually she will have to tell him the truth about that night four years ago. There are easy ways to handle that in a movie, and very often, that's the wrong road to take. Another Earth does not flinch, delivering a tough emotional confrontation that is all the more remarkable when the pieces in play are analyzed a little closer.

Audiences have seen William Mapother more times than they can remember. He served memorably on Lost and rose to some significance with his great work in the film In the Bedroom about a decade ago. Mapother reportedly worked on Another Earth for $100 a day, a gamble that should pay off if enough people see the end result. There's a lot more range in this performance than any other Mapother has given.

The real story, though, is the collaboration between star Brit Marling and director Mike Cahill. They have worked together before, co-directing a documentary in 2004. The duo co-wrote this script, and Marling delivers an impressive performance that would be no easy feat for an experienced actress. Marling, however, is new to all of this, and Another Earth would vaporize without her.

The collective trajectory of smaller films like this one continues to rise higher and higher. Certainly, this was not as cheap to produce as Paranormal Activity, nor will it make the kind of money that it did. But at Sundance, there was an aggressive bidding war over distribution for Another Earth, which was eventually secured by Fox Searchlight. That's an encouraging sign, because it indicates that studios, or at least their boutique brands, recognize that audiences remain curious and hungry for unique stories. Granted, movies like Another Earth won't pay all the bills, but it's good to see studios supporting films that challenge us with their storytelling and don't rely on 100 minutes of computer effects to get their point across.

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