Parallel lives on parallel worlds
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, July 29, 2011
"Another Earth," a sci-fi-infused Sundance darling, is an earthbound drama of guilt and redemption, set against an otherworldly backdrop.
The story takes place in the present day, just after scientists have discovered a parallel world. But rather than some unseen dimension that you enter via a wormhole, the alternate universe is a very solid, yet previously undetected planet, dubbed Earth Two. Throughout the film, the orb is clearly visible in the daytime sky, like a giant reflection in a blue pond. At times, it seems close enough that you could reach out and touch it.
There are a number of astronomical impossibilities here. What about gravity? What's orbiting what? And where exactly did it come from? First it's a speck, then gradually grows larger, moving like a car easing up to the drive-in window. But never mind all that. It's kind of pretty, actually.
But as large as Earth Two looms - literally - in the frames of Mike Cahill's film, so do its implications. It's one big, honking metaphor, as much as a special effect. As a symbol of second chances, it's as intriguing as it is frustratingly obvious.
At the heart of the story is a young woman named Rhoda, who's clearly in need of a second chance. Brit Marling, who co-wrote and co-produced the film, with Cahill, brings a searching soulfulness to the role. When the promising, college-bound high-school senior accidentally plows into another car after a night of drinking, killing the pregnant wife and son of acclaimed composer John Burroughs (William Mapother), their two lives are irrevocably altered.
Rhoda is sent to jail, instead of university, for four years. And John, after waking from a coma, spirals downward until, when we meet him four years after the accident, he's living in a house that looks like it should be condemned, shuffling from room to room in a bathrobe in a haze of booze and pills.
Rhoda, for her part, resolves to apologize to John upon her release, but loses her nerve when she sees that he doesn't know who she is. Instead, she takes a job as his cleaning lady, coming in once a week to scrub - like a modern-day Lady Macbeth - her way to atonement. As if to drive home the out-damned-spot message, the script also calls for her to moonlight as a janitor.
Now, about that second Earth.
After making radio contact with each other, the two worlds learn that they're not just parallel, but identical, down to their inhabitants. In other words, there's a Rhoda and a John up there, too. And everything that's happened to the ones in the film has also happened to their doppelgangers.
Or so the theory goes.
Plagued by guilt about the accident, Rhoda enters an essay contest whose prize is a shuttle trip to Earth Two, and wins. Meanwhile, she and John, who still doesn't know who she is, have become lovers, which complicates her decision to leave. Though Mapother isn't Marling's acting equal, his woundedness and need are palpable.
Right about here, the premise - and the metaphor - starts to fall apart a little. It's understandable that Rhoda would want to shuffle off this mortal coil; her shame is corrosive. What's less clear is what she hopes to accomplish by traveling to Earth Two. It's a parallel universe, not a time machine. If the two planets are mirrors of each other, what's the point of her trading the pain and anguish of this life for the anguish and pain of another somewhere else? Her interplanetary wanderlust doesn't make sense, even in the context of encountering another Rhoda, which would seem like it would only compound her grief, instead of mitigating it.
Unless, of course, the worlds aren't parallel after all.
It's been said that the act of observing something changes the thing being observed. This metaphysical idea - that the act of holding a mirror up to ourselves might actually alter what we see in the glass - is touched on, glancingly, by "Another Earth." It keeps the movie from descending into silliness, but it's never fully explored. The movie ends in a cliffhanger that's tantalizing, yet unresolved.
A word to the wise: One exquisitely tender scene shows Rhoda comforting a colleague (Kumar Pallana) who, in an act evocative of Greek tragedy, has hurt himself. Pay close attention to the word Rhoda traces in the palm of his hand. It's a key to the film, but it only unlocks another maddening mystery.