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Another Earth

Year: 2011
Production Co: Artists Public Domain
Director: Mike Cahill
Producer: Mike Cahill, Brit Marling
Writer: Mike Cahill, Brit Marling
Cast: Brit Marling, William Mapother

Like the best film of the 2010s (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), this is a classic example of how science fiction informs a dramatic story about characters instead of being concerned with whoosing metal doors, outlandish weapons or any of the other trappings we equate the genre with. The other Earth in the sky is a very effective device to convey the themes of the movie – guilt and second chances.

Brit Marling is Rhoda, a young woman partying after being accepted into a prestigious university and with her life seemingly mapped out for her. On her way home from the party she's not exactly drunk, but like everyone else on Earth she finds herself gazing at the seemingly duplicate Earth that's appeared in the sky and is getting closer in recent weeks.

She takes her eyes off the road just long enough to plow into the car containing the family of musician John, killing his pregnant wife, his young son and putting him in a coma. A couple of years later Rhoda is a skittish, sullen young woman working crappy jobs and barely even trying to put her life together despite her supportive family. John is a depressed shut-in living in a house he doesn't bother to clean, unable to move on.

Rhoda goes to John's house to admit what she's done to give them both some closure but loses her nerve at the last minute and poses as a cleaner. After cleaning his house he asks her to return the week after, and the two gradually connect and start to heal each other, John having no idea Rhoda is the one who killed his family because – as a minor – her identity wasn't revealed at the time.

And all the while, the world waits to learn the secret of the new arrival. As it gets closer and scientists get in contact with it, it turns out to be a complete copy of our own home down to the individuals who populate it. On a whim, Rhoda has entered a competition to fly to the other earth as a solo passenger, and after the entrepreneur founder responds to her letter, she wins.

But after Rhoda and John become lovers, she finally has a reason to stay despite her terrible secret, and she realises letting him go might be the only way to save him because his wife and son are probably still alive up there, and she'd have to tell him she's their killer and likely destroy what she has with him.

It's a heart-wrenching conundrum and provides a very effective emotional core to the story. Rhoda, John and their circumstances are so sad it's easy to forget the other planet exists until another beautiful, understated image of it hanging in the sky complete with it's own duplicate moon.

The metaphysical and astronomical is there, but none of it's in your face and like we always hear about what special effects should do, they serve the story. The closest the film gets to traditional science fiction is when a NASA scientist starts talking to someone on the other world who turns out to be a duplicate version of herself – but even that serves the larger theme where, if your life hasn't turned out right, maybe there's another you somewhere living it better.

I wasn't sure of the narrative purpose of the final few frames apart from a blaringly huge 'what if', but maybe that was the point. Some of the complaints I've read wanting to know the astronomical ins and outs miss the point, but even though it's worth watching I'd certainly agree that you need to prepare yourself for a gloomy experience. It's meandering (many will say slow, especially if they're expecting interstellar battles and rockets), and takes some sticking to at times as the dour, snowy locations add to the downbeat pace, but it's such a strong idea it deserves to be seen and these filmmakers deserve to go further.

Marling isn't quite Oscar material but as she herself has said, when the only roles around for girls her age call for them to take their clothes off or be dismembered by a killer, the character is a breath of fresh air.

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