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Another Earth

A movie directed by Mike Cahill

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When the Mirror Cracked

  • Jul 23, 2011
Star Rating:

Perhaps it’s both the greatest strength and the biggest weakness of Another Earth that it’s open to interpretation. On the one hand, you’re not bound by the constraining intentions of the filmmakers; you’re free to put your own spin on the plot, the characters, and the imagery. On the other hand, if you have no narrative guidelines to fall back on, you may paradoxically be constrained by the latitude you’re given. I faced this problem in my graduate school days, when I took a class on speculative fiction. It was a rewarding experience – I got high marks for a short story I wrote, even though I had no idea what the hell I was doing – but it was also quite challenging. Reading the assigned novels took nothing less than sheer willpower on my part, for every word seemed to be an endurance test. Somehow, I had to determine the logic with which the author was telling his or her story.
Another Earth is a lot like that. It’s speculative cinema, a science fiction fable that’s simultaneously expansive and intimate. Although it provides little in the way of resolution, it so thoroughly stimulates the imagination that it can leave you awestruck. In the context of this movie, just about anything is possible. This is amazing, given the starkness with which the story is told. This is not a polished, effects-laden star vehicle; the casting of virtual unknowns, gritty look, shaky camerawork with documentary-like zooms, and minimalist sets and sparse visual effects make it clear the director Mike Cahill wanted everything superfluous stripped away. Not only is the plot direct in its approach, the emotions come through as naturally as if the actors were actually feeling them. Nothing comes between the story and the audience.

Because the film is so open to interpretation, it’s difficult to say exactly what premise it’s founded on. Perhaps it was never meant to be just one thing. Let’s start with what the title makes reference to, namely the fantastical concept of a planet identical to our own; it initially appears as a distant blue dot in the sky, but it inches closer to Earth with every passing scene. When a scientist sends a radio signal in an attempt to make contact, she gets a reply from a woman with the same name, the same voice, the same job, and the same memories of childhood. Not only is the planet identical – the people inhabiting it are, too. From this, it can be argued that the film is founded on the premise of self-discovery. If there were another me out there, I’m not sure how I would feel. Is that guy like me in every respect, or is he a slightly different version? Would he also be a film critic? Would he be writing these words right now?
Now let’s look at this from a different perspective. In the film, we meet a young woman named Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling), whose dreams of becoming an astrophysicist were shattered after getting into a car accident and inadvertently causing the deaths of a woman and her little boy. Not only did she foolishly get behind the wheel after a night of drinking and partying, she also became distracted by the sudden appearance of the planet, shining in the night sky like a blue star. Now a ex-con desperate to avoid any contact with people, she’s determined to somehow do right by the sole survivor of the crash, whose life she irrevocably changed. This would be the woman’s husband and the boy’s father, a composer named John Burroughs (William Mapother). Since the tragedy, he’s a shadow of his former self – a housebound, emotionally vacant man suffocating under the weight of clutter and filth.

Rhoda decides to track John down and apologize. But as soon as she knocks on his door, she loses her nerve, and instead pretends to be a maid offering a trial service. She then begins a regular weekly schedule, and although he pays her, she does not cash the checks. As they spend more time together, we’re tempted to speculate that, by being in each other’s lives, they’re on the road to healing. But it’s nowhere near that simple. Any healing that we perceive is happening under false pretenses. John doesn’t know that Rhoda is the girl responsible for the death of his family, and for a time, it’s uncertain whether or not she will come clean.
As news spreads about the planet in the sky, which scientists have dubbed Earth 2, a contest is announced; submit an essay explaining why you would be the perfect candidate for visiting the planet, and if yours is selected, you’ll hitch a ride on the next space shuttle. For Rhoda, who made an unforgivable mistake, this seems like a golden opportunity. If there truly is another her out there, perhaps her life has gone in a different direction. But how is that possible if Earth 2 is a mirror image of Earth 1? It could be that, by becoming aware of the planet in the sky, object and reflection fell out of alignment, in effect altering the course of the other planet’s history. In other words, the mirror cracked. If you need an interpretation for the ending of Another Earth, think of it as the final shard of glass falling back into place, bringing object and reflection together to form a whole. As to which is the object and which is the reflection, that’s a topic for another day.


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March 03, 2012
This is a fantastic review for a fantastic movie. I don't get all the negative feedback towards it. Perhaps people wanted something more conventional in the way of a sci-fi flick but were disappointed when what they got was a solid, slow, humanistic character drama. LMAO at that, my friend.
March 03, 2012
Thanks for the praise. However, I can't say with any degree of confidence that I truly know what this movie is saying. Everything in the review is pure speculation on my part, which means I could be dead wrong.
January 01, 2012
Your humility is striking, and your review gives food for thought. I believe you got it right. The movie is open-ended to interpretation. One pro critic stated that anyone who could interpret the ending to the movie should be given a refund. I would do the opposite. ;v)
December 31, 2011
I think I get it. At first I thought I got it, then your review admirably said I got it wrong. Then again, your introduction stated (or implied) that we might both be right. JP
December 31, 2011
My goodness, what a loaded comment! I think the only part I can respond to is the last part, about how we both might be right. Hell, we both might be wrong, for that matter. I don't think there's any way to know, as I believe the filmmakers wanted us to apply our own meaning into the story.
July 23, 2011
Sounds like it is another of those abstract movies whose message is up to the viewer. I will keep an eye out for this one. Films like this can be a real treat when done right. Excellent review!
July 23, 2011
That's what makes the movie so interesting. Not everyone will respond to it, but if you're open, you might find the experience worthwhile.
More Another Earth reviews
review by . March 01, 2012
posted in Movie Hype
Another Earth is unworldly, economical, sad, hopeful, fulfilling. Maybe.       Seventeen-year-old Rhonda Williams (Bret Marling) is a bright kid with a promising future. She’s part of a nice, middle-class family. She also is sometimes wild and irresponsible. When she drives off in the family car one night, she’s drunk. She crashes head on into a car driven by the composer and teacher, John Burroughs (William Mapother). The crash kills Burroughs’ pregnant …
review by . September 28, 2012
posted in Movie Hype
Watching Lars Von Trier's Melancholia, about an approaching planet led me to this movie made around the same time.    As Another Earth begins, we are introduced to a bright, attractive young girl with a brilliant future, with an interest in the Cosmos, and she has just got into MIT.    When another earth with the same continents and oceans appears in the sky, people get excited, some are nervous. As she drives along that night, a radio announcer talks excitedly …
review by . December 31, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
'Another Earth' is the kind of movie that deserves some pondering and a second look. There's a tptation to pigeon hole our expectations into making this a great space adventure, but it's not. It is science fiction, but if my memoty serves me correctly from high school, this is soft (i.e. read social issues based, rather than hard (i.e. read science technology based) science fiction voyage. Some can be both, and this one is also both, but is far more the former than the latter.    Cosmic …
review by . December 06, 2011
posted in Awesomeness
FADE IN:       Spoiled brat Brit Marling is driving home shitfaced listening to the exposition on the radio when she sees Another Earth in the sky.      CUT TO another car containing a perfect family.   WILLIAM MAPOTHER   Holy shit, this family's so nuclear I'm amazed Iran hasn't tried to weaponize it. Brit Marling like totally runs a light or something and wipes out the nuclear family's car - KA-POW! - even though …
review by . January 19, 2012
posted in Movie Hype
***1/2 out of ****    I know, I know; "Another Earth" is not, in the slightest, an easy film to like. It is depressing, slow, and somber; enhanced by the moody cinematography of its maker. But the writer and director, Mike Cahill, has made a film that isn't easy to like also very easy to admire; and I consider that to be some kind of achievement. It may not be great one; but regardless, Cahill has made a film that quenched my thirst for intrigue. It's daring, it's brilliant, …
About the reviewer
Chris Pandolfi ()
Ranked #2
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
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"When the Mirror Cracked"
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