"Another Earth" is quietly and movingly out of this world.
Director Mike Cahill has woven sci-fi imaginings and quantum physics theories of parallel universes into a provocative meditation on the prospect of rewriting your life history. It is no simple task to spin such abstract notions into smart (versus cheesy) entertainment, but there is such a strong creative voice stirring in Cahill's first feature that it's easy to forgive the shortcomings.
The film stars the ethereal young actress Brit Marling, who co-wrote and co-produced with Cahill, and the rock-solid William Mapother (Ethan on "Lost"). They are strangers whose lives are upended by tragedy on a night seemingly filled with endless possibilities brought about by the discovery of a replica of Earth, dubbed Earth 2, in our skies. What-ifs abound — what if there's another you, what would you say if you met your other self?
The shoulders carrying the weight of these worlds belong to Rhoda (Marling), a high school senior whose MIT future goes up in flames after a horrific mistake sends her to jail, and John (Mapother), a noted composer whose life goes into a terrible tailspin after an unbearable loss. The major scientific and philosophic implications of Earth 2 are debated by TV talking heads, and there are brief narrative threads offered by a scientist the filmmaker met while working on the film, that serve to answer the kind of questions one would have if something like this actually happened. Locked in their own parallel universe are Rhoda and John, trying to make sense of their damaged existence.
By melding that collision of events, the filmmakers use the ordinary to examine the extraordinary, forcing the central characters to contemplate how a choice can change a life, the way regret reshapes a future, why redemption rarely comes easy and whether a second chance in any world is worth the risk. The intimate telling puts "Another Earth" in the tradition of humanistic sci-fi movies like John Carpenter's "Starman" and John Sayles "Brother From Another Planet."
Set in the New Haven, Conn., area and moving between Rhoda's un-mussed suburban neighborhood, John's isolated rural house and the windswept Atlantic beaches that seem chilly year-round, the script takes us quickly from that fateful night to a present day four years later. Rhoda is out of jail, her dreams of becoming an astrophysicist now shelved for a janitorial job at her old high school. In fact, cleaning up messes — both literally and metaphorically — is her new obsession. John, meanwhile, is the living embodiment of a mess — drinking away the nights and days with piles of clothes, papers and dishes growing as his house and career deteriorates.
The heart of the film hangs on both the everyday and otherworldly. What will happen when Rhoda turns up at John's door with a free trial offer from the Maid in Haven cleaning service, yet another level of her self-imposed penance, and will she win the essay contest for a life-altering spot on the space shuttle bound for Earth 2?
Employing the lean look found in his documentary work, particularly 2004's artfully done "Boxers and Ballerinas," the director creates a stripped-down portraiture style that gives his actors plenty of room to breathe. Both Marling and Mapother breathe deeply as they swing between isolation and intimacy.
Because of her crime and the way it has marked her, Rhoda always seems a little spacey, in danger of drifting off. Marling's gift is the nuanced way she uses the physical to keep her character tethered to reality — weary in scrubbing the school's graffiti-covered walls, gentle in folding John's freshly washed clothes. In Mapother, John's rage and sadness becomes a hard shell protecting him from all that softness. Together they create a lovely balance with Cahill's touch, which is also there as cinematographer and editor, forever light.
Everything is nicely knitted together with the help of an airy score from indie rock band Fall on Your Sword. The group manages to use electronic and authentic instruments to evoke one of those out-of-body planetarium memories; a heartbreaking solo with a bow and an old-fashioned handsaw becomes one of the most moving musical moments in memory.
With so many big ideas packed into this tiny indie, it should come as no surprise that there are loose threads everywhere. What keeps it all from unraveling is the assurance found in even the most unfinished moments. As for the imagination in "Another Earth," there are no outer limits.