'Another Earth': An Anticlimactic Journey Toward the Discovery of Self
Rhoda (Brit Marling) swirls and steps drunkenly, her light dress flouncing in the bright kitchen light as she celebrates her acceptance to MIT with her friends. She describes herself as feeling “invincible” as she starts her car and drives home aimlessly. On the radio, a jolly light voice proclaims that humanity has discovered “another earth.”
Rhoda stares up at the stars in search of this other earth. Her eyes leave the road ahead where musician John Burroughs (William Mapother) sits in a car with his wife and son. The family jokes and laugh, as the son cradles a stuffed animal, a foreboding look in his eyes.
The viewer realizes what is about to happen before it occurs. The accident leaves a moonlit wreckage of glass and toys, the mother and son dead. Rhoda emerges from her car with dark blood dripping from her lips, her mouth agape, refusing to register what she has done.
After four years in jail, Rhoda emerges a different person, living in her own removed world. As Rhoda stumbles through life, friendless and alone, radio broadcasts play with the same voice Rhoda heard on the night of the accident. Additionally, Dr. Richard Berendzen narrates Rhoda’s amblings, speaking about our other selves and musing about life in other worlds as Rhoda returns again and again to the site of the accident.
It’s unclear why Rhoda continues to return, as she appears too removed to even be haunted by her crime. She continues to interact with her implausibly happy family as if everything is normal. Her face rarely registers emotion. And she takes up a job as a janitor at her old high school, because she doesn’t “want to be around too many people, or do too much talking.”
Her only companion is her coworker Purdeep (Kumar Pallana), who eventually ends up in the hospital, unable to see or hear after pouring bleach in his eyes and ears. “Rhoda,” he croaks, recognizing her touch. He traces the lines of her hands, and in this instant they both seem immortal, yet simultaneously human.
Like Purdeep, Rhoda is also suicidal, stripping naked and laying down in the frozen ice as her body shakes disjointedly. She too ends up in the hospital. The iciness and broken feel of human interaction created by the filmmaker through overexposed scenes and choppy transitions help the viewer climb into the mind of these suicidal characters who find themselves distant, removed, and alienated from the rest of human existence.
Rhoda’s only real human interactions exist between her and John Burroughs. After showing up at his door to apologize for the murder of his wife and son, she looses her nerve and pretends to be from a cleaning agency. Burroughs never found out the name of the accused because Rhoda was a minor. And as the relationship between Rhoda and Burroughs becomes more intimate, Rhoda continues to hide the truth about who she is.
If only there was a deep truth about Rhoda’s identity, if only she seemed to be experiencing real pain in the never-ending contradictory lifestyle she leads, the movie would perhaps have more of an emotional impact. Instead, Rhoda continues to maintain an icy coldness and apathy towards life. The only emotional high in the movie comes when Rhoda wins a ticket to the other earth, a place where her life is potentially different. On this other earth, she will be able to encounter her other self.
Perhaps if Rhoda’s original self were more intriguing, or if the viewer cared enough about Rhoda as a character, then her encounter with this other self would intrigue. Instead, it puzzles and baffles, as the viewer realizes that Rhoda is not rich enough as a character to have another self who’s different in any significant or interesting way.
However, the film spends the majority of its hour and thirty two minutes building up to Rhoda’s trip to the other earth and her meeting with her other self. The viewer then expects this interaction to take up a good ten minutes. Instead, we watch Rhoda walk around her house on the other earth in her janitor’s uniform. Her other self awaits, blonde hair blowing in the otherworldly wind, dressed in a professional black trench coat. The movie ends as Rhoda approaches her other self, who looks so desperately different from Rhoda in appearance. Forget the character of the other self, who never opens her mouth and who the viewer never discovers. Instead, the alienated other becomes Rhoda in this world, and the earth we know becomes the one we wish the filmmaker could spend more effort in understanding and discovering.
With unrealized potential for poignancy and grace, Another Earth’s only success is the alienated, creepy feeling it engenders in the viewer. The film is beautifully executed, aside from the image of the other earth, which looks copied and pasted on the horizon, contrasting with the constantly bright blue sky.
The entire film begins to take on a theoretical copy and pasted effect, as characters, scenery, and narration refuse to cooperate. Ultimately the filmgoer is left with the unanswered question posed by Berendzen, “Could we even recognize ourselves, and if we did, would we know ourselves? What would we say to ourselves? What would we learn from ourselves?” The question sounds trite, contrived, and is ultimately left unanswered. In a scientifically inclined movie, there’s something to be said for posing difficult questions and leaving them open-ended. Yet the search for self and truth becomes irrelevant as the filmgoer, like Rhoda, ceases to care about the answers.
Rhoda, played by Brit Marling, co-authored the script with director Mike Cahill. Said Cahill in an interview, courtesy of Screenplay Inc., “audiences will not get what they’re expecting.” He hoped that audiences would get something “profound and beautiful.” Profound and beautiful is expected, but instead, the audience gets a taste of profound, a taste of beautiful, but with a layer of apathy that dulls the film’s ultimate message and its potential for success.