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Wednesday 22 November 2017

Review: Another Earth

Rating: * * * *
(12A, general release)

Paul Whitington

The directorial debut of Mike Cahill, Another Earth is part melodrama, part sci-fi fantasy, and has a certain amount in common with Lars von Trier's Melancholia. As in Melancholia, the arrival in our orbit of another planet coincides with the emotional meltdown of Another Earth's principal characters, and both films are suffused with an atmosphere of impending doom.

There, though, comparisons end, because Another Earth is ultimately far less pessimistic than Von Trier's film, and was also made for a hell of a lot less. While Von Trier had around $9m to play with, Mike Cahill had as little as $200,000 at his disposal, but he has used it very well.

Brit Marling, who co-wrote the screenplay with Cahill, plays Rhoda Williams, a young student who seems to have a bright future ahead of her. She's just been accepted to study at MIT, goes out to celebrate with friends and decides to drive her car home afterwards.

Rhoda is drunk and high when her car careers head-on into another, killing a mother and a small child and leaving the driver in a coma. Rhoda does four years in jail, but the overwhelming guilt she feels makes the prison bars redundant. When she gets out, she's a shell of herself and abandons all her academic pretensions to take a cleaning job at a local high school.

Her cleaning obsession has obvious psychological roots, but meanwhile the world has been distracted by the arrival near the moon of a blue, potentially life-sustaining planet that seems a carbon copy of our own. When communication is established, it becomes apparent that the new planet is laid out, developed and populated exactly as ours is, which means that everyone has a doppelganger on this other Earth.

Rhoda is fascinated by this news, because it raises the possibility that up there is another version of herself that has not made the same horrible mistake.

Meanwhile, she attempts to redress that awful mistake by tracking down the driver of the car she hit with the intention of apologising.

John Burroughs (William Mapother) emerged from his coma but has been unable to move on from the crash. Haunted by the loss of his wife and child, he has neglected his career as a classical musician and lives in squalor in a rambling, empty home.

When Rhoda arrives at his door to apologise, her nerve fails her when she sees what he has been reduced to, so she pretends she's from a cleaning company that's offering free trials.

Burroughs eventually hires her to come every week, and his gruff manners gradually begin to thaw. He even starts to have feelings for Rhoda, which she seems to reciprocate, but her economy with the truth becomes ever more problematic.

Looming in the background is that other Earth: a billionaire businessman is running a competition to win places on a civilian space flight to the approaching planet. Rhoda enters, perhaps hoping that in this new world she might be able to erase her past.

Another Earth seems to have divided critics in America: science-fiction fans have complained that the film's extraterrestrial elements remain completely undeveloped, and others have found the drama too contrived.

But I think the concept of the other planet is believable precisely because it's not explored: it's referred to in passing and in half-heard news reports, and is really intended to be a plot device rather than a central theme.

Guilt and forgiveness are the subjects Cahill is really interested in exploring, and he's helped in this endeavour by two very strong performances from Mapother and talented newcomer Marling.

Mapother's portrayal of a traumatised and wounded man anchors the film, and Marling allows us to sympathise with Rhoda and her search for redemption.

There's a pleasing starkness to Another Earth's aesthetic and an accomplished look that belies the slender budget. Not everyone will be happy with the film's climax and, in truth, the ending seems a little pat.

But, for the most part, Cahill keeps his focus admirably and turns what might have been a gimmicky project into a complex and genuinely moving drama.

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