Another Earth is measured and introspective. It’s an idle question, a daydream for when things go wrong. What if there was another earth out there and all your mistakes hadn’t happened. Another earth, a better you.
The film opens with Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling) celebrating her acceptance into MIT and while driving home drunk she is distracted by a news story on the radio describing the discovery of an Earth-like planet in the solar system. She gets into an accident that kills a mother and child while leaving the father, John Burroughs, alive but in a coma. This immediately places this other Earth at the heart of the story, but always on the outside, looming over everything. This is the only science fiction in the film and continues to act as a catalyst, but not to drive the plot forward (except by providing a clear begin and end point). I suppose you could consider it on the literary side of SF should you find yourself compulsively classifying it.
Rhoda leaves prison after a number of years and gets a job as a janitor at a local school. The shift is rather brutal as she is surrounded by all the children who still have their lives ahead of them unspoiled, while she is left cleaning up after them. The other Earth is growing closer and attempts are being made to contact it. She discovers John Burroughs has woken from his coma and goes to see him to apologise and make amends, and maybe start fresh – a somewhat obvious parallel to her job as a janitor.
In that moment when she is finally face to face with him she can’t do it and pretends to be a house cleaner looking for work. Burroughs is a broken man who lives in the shadow of the life he has lost, both figuratively and literally as his home is a dark place. He hires Rhoda and they begin to spend time together. The dialogue is very sparse, instead relying on atmosphere, music, and the silent interactions between the two characters. This could have failed rather miserably, but instead becomes a poignant chronicle of each characters’ redemption.
A lot of SF deals with redemption as SF allows characters to experience things that are entirely new, which can serve as an easy shorthand to show the changes a character goes through as they become a new person in this new situation. The only SF element in the movie is the arrival of ‘another Earth’ approaching the real or original Earth. This other world is never shown except as a growing feature in the sky – there are no futuristic trappings such as mega cities, space ships/stations, flying cars, or personal computers in your eyeball.
The whole movie is shot in settings that are run down, depressing, and mundane. The Second Earth grows larger in the sky as the movie progresses signalling the arrival of the climactic point where the building pressure will finally be released. In this respect it works well as there is a clear timetable to the film, which makes it feel far more controlled. As you watch you cannot help but be aware of this other planet’s imminent arrival as well as the inevitable revelation that Rhoda has to make in admitting their shared past. In a way, this is a second breaking for each character as their new emotional ties are shattered, and it is only after this that they can really start healing.
Filled with silence and very sombre, this is a quiet movie that you shouldn’t watch expecting big action sequences or lots of hyper-emotional interactions between characters. The fate of the world doesn’t hang in the balance, just the lives of these two broken people.
If you liked Gattaca, I’d highly recommend this.