Sunday, May 22, 2011

SIFF — Another Earth

One of three SIFF screenings of the day, the other two being Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff and LOVE.

Another Earth
USA, 2011
SIFF's page
Official site

Another Earth is a film I utterly loved as I exited the theater. It moved me, impressed me as a modestly budgeted indie, and gave me a movie-going experience that flipped my expectations (which were admittedly few, as I went into the theater unspoiled by any word beyond the SIFF blurb). I came away certain that we'll be seeing more from director Mike Cahill — whose sculptor-sharp economy of editing and directing impressed me right out of the gate — and especially his lead player Brit Marling, who co-produced and co-wrote the script while also being photogenic like a marketing manager's dream.

Afterward, though, as I sit here writing this, I'm conflicted. Now that the immediate reaction has worn off, I'm not certain that watching Another Earth a second time wouldn't annoy the piss out of me.

It's a matter of a story that invites us to peer into its depths and folds and symbols, to give it a good deep-think, and hooray for that; but as I sit here peering into those folds and deep-thinkery, I'm coming up wondering how much of my initial thrill derived from factors outside the movie itself — a particularly pleasant breakfast a few hours earlier, or the sheer pleasure of seeing three previously unknown films in good company on a nice May day in Seattle.


After celebrating her acceptance into MIT in astrophysics at age 17, Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling in what I imagine will be a breakout performance) is responsible for a drunken car crash that destroys the family and therefore the life of John Burroughs (William Mapother) and sends her to prison for four years; meanwhile a mirror planet Earth has appeared in the sky, opening questions of what it represents if there's another you there too — perhaps a You who made different choices or for whom chance (or fate or destiny or whatever) dealt a different hand.

After Rhoda gets released from prison, she seeks out John. At the moment of their first meeting, what begins as an act of contrition and repentance is overpowered by the weight of her shame and remorse, twisting the moment into a new trajectory of lies and evasions. It's that trajectory which gradually opens a deeply fraught emotional relationship and co-dependency between Rhoda and John; meanwhile, he remains unaware of just who she is and how her life has already intersected his.

On the one hand...

Despite its distinctive high-concept science-fiction component, it does a disservice to describe this moody chamber piece as a "science fiction movie," a label that automatically barnacles a set of tropes and expectations onto the film that don't and shouldn't apply to what's actually here. That alternate Earth is more than a MacGuffin, not just another artificial Plot Device familiar in conventional science fiction. Although Isaac Asimov's Foundation books get a nice visual shout-out in the film, and the new Earth is treated as a thing of orbital mechanics and a physical place (a millionaire is sponsoring a contest to visit the planet in his private-venture shuttle, a contest Rhoda enters), there's more of Borges than Buck Rogers here.

Again: hooray for that.

Anyone who watches the film fretting about such things as orbital dynamics and Newtonian laws (where has it been and why is it here now? what about tidal forces?) is missing more than just the point. For one thing, worrying how a duplicate Earth could be there is trivial given the existence of a duplicate Earth at all.

On the other hand...

When it comes to that crucial suspension of disbelief, Earth 2's existence can't help but bring up nagging questions even if they are beside the point. Evidently it did for Cahill and Marling too, and the script stumbles when it tries fleetingly to address the issue. Yet instead of successfully lampshading Earth 2's more credulity-straining conundrums, the script compounds them with pseudo-science rubbish dialogue.

On the one hand...

The appearance of "Earth 2" is crucial to the twining of Rhoda and John's individually broken lives, providing a literally overhanging presence that adds a metaphorical layer onto Rhoda and John's intimate earthbound story, a layer that magnifies like a telescope lens the film's themes of human connection, communication, redemption, and the universal "what if?" questions of personal fate, choices, identity, and that thing T.S. Eliot said about "In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse."

On the other hand...

As a poetic metaphor it's as obvious and anvilicious as, well, as a big ol' planet hanging over your head.

On the one hand...

Brit Marling, who carries the film through nearly every frame, and Mapother deliver strong performances that are, like the look and feel of Another Earth as a whole, subdued and self-possessed.

Mike Cahill's cinematography is striking and atmospheric, and his directing and editing are spare and finely controlled. The narrative is communicated with welcome single-stroke economy as if the material had been chiseled down to core essences. He displays a keen sense of cinematic less-is-more, which I always appreciate.

On the other hand...

A subplot involving Rhoda's elderly, Indian co-worker Purdeep (Kumar Pallana), who has poured bleach into his ears — and during the film, his eyes — to deafen and blind him to his own life's tragic sorrows, jumps the tracks early on. He begins as a standard-issue cinematic Worldly Wisdom vending machine for Rhoda, and ends in a hospital scene built on sentimental clichés so hoary that I wanted to bleach my own eyes and ears. Given the strengths evident elsewhere in the script, I'm curious as to why this character remained in the final film at all.

Oh, and the essay contest, its sponsor, and Rhoda's entry: I'm not buying it, alas.

On the one hand...

I appreciate that the narrative's axis spins on Rhoda insinuating herself into John's life in ways that emerge from her own understandable, relatable damage and weakness and desire to somehow make amends.

On the other hand...

Her self-serving naivete grates. I predict that some critics will bash her kneecaps for being both duplicitous and clueless to the further devastation she's setting up for John. Now, this didn't bother me so much at the time as I was fully engaged with their story as I was watching it unfold. But in retrospect I find my feelings for her shifting from sympathy to annoyance at how superficially she's drawn as a character. I can retcon it by reminding myself that Rhoda is 21 years old and everyone at that age, especially someone so traumatized, is naive and clueless and superficial and flailing, but that does not necessarily make her actions palatable.

On the one hand...

A great deal here really worked for me as I watched it. Another Earth is not "riveting" in the way the word usually gets applied to a movie, and yet there I was, knuckle-chewing riveted like I haven't felt in a long time. And then that final button in the final scene — I tell you, it left me wanting to high-five the screen.

On the other hand...

I'm not finding that Another Earth maintains its gravitational hold on me as I distance myself from it. Too much of its surface crumbles at a touch.

Another Earth received a standing O at its Sundance premiere, where Fox Searchlight won distribution rights in a bidding war that included Focus Features and The Weinstein Company. I just hope the new marketing attention does not not not try to sell it as a Science Fiction Movie. It is that, yes, but it lies so far outside that generic label that to sell it as such, especially in a summer packed with sci-fi wheezes such as Transformers and aliens and superheroes, does a disservice to the movie and to its potential audience.

Music: Tom Waits
Near at hand: Coffee cup from the Shipping Dock Theatre Co., Rochester, NY