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; its 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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