Muse, The Muse

“Another Earth” director shows strong debut

If we could meet replicas of ourselves, what would we say? Such is the premise for the popular “Stoli” vodka campaign, “Would You Have a Drink With You?” featuring Hugh Hefner and Julia Stiles.

But this question is also the foundation of something much deeper, something from outside this realm: the relatively-unknown, 2011 Sundance Film Festival favorite, “Another Earth.” In his cerebral debut film, director Mike Cahill interrogates audiences on the possibility of meeting our clones. Would we want to meet ourselves? Would we know ourselves?

Asking these same questions in “Another Earth” is Rhoda (Brit Marling), a brilliant high school senior soon to join MIT’s aerospace program. The celebration is shattered, however, as Rhoda drives straight into a family vehicle, killing a mother, child and nearly the father – all because she was distracted by a new celestial body in the sky.

A four-year prison sentence later, Rhoda emerges distant, taciturn, but determined to feel again. Instead of researching the planet that continues to approach Earth, Rhoda assumes work scrubbing graffiti from high school walls and spies on her recovered, but still traumatized victim, John, (William Mapother) longing for his forgiveness. She eventually summons the courage to apologize, only to be appointed as John’s maid, and soon, his friend.

As Rhoda and John draw closer, so does Earth II, discovered to not only be an exact replica of our own Earth, but to be populated by the same people, to have an identical history as ours, until the instant of recognition of the two’s coexistence four years ago – the night of the accident. Thus, as a single ticket to visit Earth II is offered through a worldwide contest, both Rhoda and John contemplate what life there could be like – and who could be alive.

The plot is rather brilliant; interaction with a self-replica is a compelling and relatively untouched plot concept. What’s more, sci-fi allure combined with moral questions is often ignored in today’s market in favor of action-based sci-fi films like “The Green Lantern” and “Transformers.” Despite this, Cahill boldly pursues the trepidation, sacrifice and relief intrinsic to forgiveness. This moral excavation is crystallized in the scene where Rhoda deliberates between leaving an unreceptive John forever and impersonating a cleaning lady simply to spend time with him, a dilemma strongly performed by Marling. Becoming even more philosophic, Cahill examines the gravity of meeting one’s clone by having John compare a visit to the unknown on Earth II to the repercussions after enlightenment in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” Not something you see every day on the silver screen…

That being said, there are some narrative issues. While the audience can imagine the psychological strain that prison had on Rhoda, film time devoted to her four-year sentence would be appreciated, simply to understand its contribution to her transformation. Why Earth II is suddenly now, and so quickly, approaching Earth is never explained. A male voiceover randomly appears and disappears close to the end of the film, entirely unexplained. Additionally, Rhoda and John become close too quickly to accurately echo realism and more time given to developing their relationship would be more natural.

But where the plot fails, artistry provides relief. To contrast Rhoda’s fast-tracked life before the accident against her monotony after, shaky, quickly-cut close ups transition into spacious, drawn out, long shots. Even with their small budget, Cahill made Earth II look amazingly lifelike. Much of the scientific information, especially in the exposition, is communicated via radio broadcasts, a fantastic tool through which to consolidate background details. The soundtrack, composed by Fall on Your Sword, is especially imaginative, and follows the plot intricately.

Ending fabulously with a cliffhanger that itself opens new plot questions, Mike Cahill closes his directorial debut. And as with all first attempts, they can’t be perfect. But if “Another Earth” and its Alfred P. Sloan prize from Sundance are any indication, we have more erudite, out-of-this-world material to look forward to.

Carl Sagan, one of the greatest astronomers of our time, said, “The brain is like a muscle. When it is in use, we feel very good. Understanding is joyous.” “Another Earth” uses the brain. It makes us feel very good. It is joyous.

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