“Another Earth” – Sci Fi Meets Philosophy
Sci-fi movies and books have generally always fallen into one of two categories – the kind where hostile creatures invade and mayhem ensues, and the kind which used alternate universes to explore deeper questions about the nature of humanity. Another Earth falls into the latter. It contains very little in the way of special effects, but poses some pretty deep questions about the threads which hold our life together, for better or worse.
Relative newcomer Brit Marling (who also co-wrote the script) plays Rhoda Williams, a brilliant young student on the verge of entering MIT, whose life comes apart after a night of drunken celebrating, when she gets into a car accident kills the wife and child of a music professor named John Burroughs (played by William Mapother). All of this occurs on the night that astronomers discover a planet which is absolutely identical to Earth, right down to the people living on it. In the moments leading up to her accident, Rhoda is listening to this news on her car radio and looking into the sky. Later, scientists speculate that the moment these two “Earths” discover each other, is also the moment in which their identical histories diverge (a key element to the end of the film).
Flash forward a few years, following a prison sentence, and Rhoda is working as a janitor. She’s plagued with guilt over killing Burroughs’ family, and wants desperately to tell him how sorry she is. Burroughs, meanwhile, is living in squalor, unable to function as a human being any more, let alone continue his career as a professor. Rhoda pretends to be from a company offering free house cleaning, and slowly involves herself in his life to try and save him from the despair that is drowning him.
During the years that Rhoda was in prison, wealthy individuals from the private sector develop a plan to visit the “other” Earth, and offer to give a seat to anyone who writes an essay telling why they would be a good candidate. As you can probably guess, Rhoda enters this competition. And while this sort of story could fall over itself trying to ape just about every cliche the genre has created, it doesn’t. Instead it brings us into the story on a human level, asking audiences to imagine your own life in which everything possible has gone wrong. How would you react if you met yourself in another, parallel universe? What would you say? Would it make anything better? And in the greatest of sci-fi traditions, Another Earth makes no attempt to answer its own questions.
As the film began to wind down, I sat trying to speculate as to how they were going to pull off an ending to a story like this, without making it seem obvious and laughable. All I will say is this, the writers deserve huge kudos for executing one of the most clever conclusions I could imagine. It hearkens back to some of the brilliant Twilight Zone episodes of the golden age, and deftly uses an element of suggestion to leave the audience both satisfied, yet full of questions.