A seventeen year old girl named Rhoda parties too hard one night and decides to drive back to her place instead of taking a cab. She’s young and careless. It’s the sort of thing that she’ll kick herself for later when she makes it home and realizes how stupid this was. Only, she doesn’t make it home. She smashes into a car driven by John, killing his wife and child and leaving him in a coma for over a year. Rhoda herself is sent to prison for four years. When she comes out she’s so profoundly changed that she might as well have died in the crash. She’s a shell of a person who barely talks and never looks anyone in the eye. She hasn’t forgiven herself for what she did and is not sure she wants to. One thinks that she would commit suicide, except that it would end her guilt and suffering, and she’s not sure she wants to do that either. She’s a smart girl, could get a good job, even with the felony rap against her, but she goes to work as a janitor because she doesn’t feel like she deserves a good job. The first thing she does when she arrives home is strip her bedroom bare to just a mattress on the floor and a picture of the Horsehead nebula on the wall. She doesn’t want her things anymore, doesn’t feel she should have them. Besides, the person who owned all that is gone for good. The picture though? I can’t say, maybe she couldn’t either. It may be that there is still a little part of her not filled with despair, a part that dreams of a better world that’s far away, a world where she doesn’t exist.
Eventually, she goes to meet John to try and apologize. He’s never seen her before and has no idea who killed his family. She was a minor at the time so the records are sealed. She wants to confess to him, or at the very least let him know the face and name of his family’s killer, but she can’t do it. Instead she lies and says she’s from a cleaning service. John, by now, has sunk into the depths of alcoholism and depression and is too drunk, lonely and sad to see through her rather thin ruse. So he lets her in. You can see it in his face that he needs to hear another heartbeat inside the house, even if it is just some nameless cleaning girl.
They begin a tentative relationship. Not love exactly and not friendship either, just a raw need. He needs to have someone else in his life. She needs to try to help him heal at whatever the cost. It’s telling of how Rhoda feels that the first time we see her smile in the entire film is only after she sees John smile. She can’t even allow herself that much, you see.
I liked Rhoda. She felt so honestly and profoundly bad for what happened, loathing herself for having been the cause of such destruction. Yes, it’s her fault. Yes, she was responsible. However, she would do anything to take it back. Her relationship with John isn’t romantic, even when it enters a more physical stage. It’s just that her desire for penance is so sincere and selfless that she would give everything she has to him, her body, her mind and her soul. She doesn’t care about herself anymore. Her only desire is to either atone or die. Her anguish is so catastrophic that it can’t help but touch you.
I’m guessing that some of you have seen the trailer or read about the film, and by now are probably asking: “Um, Jeremy? What about the part in the movie where the SECOND PLANET EARTH appears in the sky?”
Oh yeah… that.
Aside from the excellent drama that engrossed me and which I’ve described above, there is also a second Earth that has appeared in the sky following the same orbit around the sun as our planet. If it came out of another dimension or slipped through a tear in the space time continuum, no one can say, but it’s there. It’s so close that we could go visit with present day technology, so close that we can see that their cities are the same as our cities. We try to contact them but it’s frustrating because all our signals are just being bounced back. Is the planet even real? Maybe it’s just some great space mirror anomaly, and we’re all being fooled by a cosmic practical joke? Then someone realizes that our signals aren’t being bounced back at all. It’s just that their signals are exactly the same as our signals. They’re trying to contact us too.
Don’t get me wrong. I liked the sci-fi aspects of the story. If it had just been a drama, I wouldn’t have been quite as engrossed and might have been turned off from watching it in the first place. So I appreciate the writers working in some fascinating genre elements to liven up the film. However, if I’m making it sound more like a drama than a science fiction film it’s for a good reason. The sci-fi is there to raise existential questions, not to impress with special effects. When Rhoda looks up at the second Earth she doesn’t see a cool Pink Floyd poster. She sees hope. Maybe over there is a place where she isn’t a ghost that haunts the world with her regret.
I think a sort of singularity has been reached with science-fiction, where we’ve sailed off the map past all the previous “sci-fi” years like 2001 and 2010 to a place where modern technology has gotten so advanced that the robots and rockets that used to satiate fans no longer cut it. That’s fine by me, since I never really cared for much of the “science” in sci-fi. Besides, it’s gotten to the point where science fiction movies don’t feel futuristic, but contemporary.
Another Earth was co-written by its star Brit Marling and you can tell it was written by a woman. It’s sweet and sensitive, gentle and emotional, all without ever being melodramatic. Mike Cahill, the director and co-writer, directs all this subtle and nuanced material with a sure hand. It would have been so easy to turn this all into a sappy Lilith Fair music video, but he never allows it to happen.
I love movies that have heart and soul like this, that contain people who are heartbreakingly human and beautiful and good. A lesser actress would have played Rhoda as moody and sullen, but Marling never does. She plays her as someone who has been broken by her mistake, the past a rotting albatross around her neck. William Mapother is equally good as John, a man seething with anger but who is never theatrical about it. He is a deeply wounded man, but he is not cruel.
The very last scene before the fade to black is so utterly haunting that I don’t think I’ve ever felt my breath taken away like that before. It was perfect, in fact just about everything in this movie is.