Tired story lines touch down on Another Earth

by Andrew Doerfler / Beacon Staff • May 11, 2011

There’s a whole lot of potential in the premise of Another Earth, one of the most anticipated pictures to screen at the Independent Film Festival of Boston this year. In the film, scientists discover a “mirror planet” to Earth on the opposite side of the sun; one with the same exact wildlife, geographical features, and, most importantly, people. Communication begins to develop between the two planets and soon enough, an eccentric entrepreneur (a clear nod to Richard Branson), launches an essay contest, the winners of which will claim a spot on the first voyage to the “other Earth.”

The idea is ripe for explorations of self-reflection, and director/co-screenwriter Mike Cahill attempts to examine these possibilities through the story of MIT-bound student Rhoda Williams, played by Cahill’s friend and co-screenwriter Brit Marling. But it turns out that story is a trite and predictable one, and one that distracts from the captivating sci-fi background it’s meant to complement.

On the night of the other Earth’s discovery, Rhoda, drunk behind the wheel and staring at the distant blue dot, crashes into the car of composer John Burroughs, killing his wife and young son. After leaving prison four years later, Rhoda seeks out Burroughs -- who does not know the identity of the person who ruined his life -- to apologize but loses her nerve when they meet. She continues to visit him, though, and the two grow closer while Rhoda ponders the opportunities available to her if she can get on a flight to “Earth Two.” The whole setup feels forced and far-fetched, and the story proceeds in a similarly contrived and lazy manner.

Cahill attempts to hide the weakness of the script behind a heavy, cerebral tone, created in near equal measure by the muted color palette, an ethereal soundtrack, and Marling’s quiet expressiveness.

His success in crafting mood, though, doesn’t cover up Another Earth’s missteps. The film leaves so much about Earth Two to the imagination that the planet never amounts to anything more than an abstract shadow over all the film’s events. Assumedly, this was an intentional move -- the other Earth means something different to everyone, and the lack of concrete information or images accentuates that theme. But perhaps some more detail about this neat concept could have saved it from being wasted on such a limp plot.

The problem isn’t helped by the unconvincing performance William Mapother gives as Burroughs. He exaggerates every stage of the character’s oscillating emotion arc -- he’s either too cartoonishly happy not to have something bad about to happen to him, or too cartoonishly downtrodden not to eventually be redeemed. Marling manages to pick up some of the slack, but she alone can’t carry a story that relies so heavily on the chemistry between two characters.

To its credit, Another Earth’s final scene offers a satisfying and striking payoff (albeit the ambiguous kind typical of psychological sci-fi dramas). Those willing to put up with the trite storyline for the glimpses of other-wordly self-reflection will most likely find themselves mulling over the film’s premise. Ultimately, though, Another Earth doesn’t offer enough depth to keep any questions in mind much longer than the time it takes to get home from the theater.

Another Earth will land in theaters July 22.