(2011) Science Fiction (Fox Searchlight) Brit Marling, William Mapother, Jordan Baker, Robin Lord Taylor, Flint Beverage, Diane Ciesla, Bruce Winant, Natalie Carter, Meggan Lennon, AJ Diana, Kumar Pallana, Ana Kayne, Matthew-Lee Erlbach. Directed by Mike Cahill
From time to time, we all do something wrong – either through our actions or inaction, we cause others pain and/or suffering. It is our human nature to want to make amends. However sometimes the things we do are so unforgivable that no amends are possible.
Rhoda Williams (Marling), a high school senior at West Haven High School in New Haven, Connecticut has just been accepted to MIT in the field of astrophysics. She goes out with friends to celebrate and winds up celebrating a bit too much, getting herself well and truly hammered. While driving home, she hears a news report about the discovery of a new Earth-like planet visible in the night sky. As she cranes her head to take a look, she runs a stop sign and her car slams into another car, putting its driver into a coma and killing his pregnant wife and son instantly. Rhoda is sentenced to prison although because she’s a minor, her name is never released.
Flash-forward four years. A guilt-wracked Rhoda has just been released from prison. Even though she qualifies for better positions, she takes a job as a janitor at her old high school. The new Earth is large in the night sky now, visible as a beautiful blue moon. It is coming closer and will soon be close enough for a manned mission to be possible. An Australian entrepreneur comes up with the scheme to fly civilians to the new world and launches an essay contest for worthy participants in this adventure. Rhoda, still fascinated by other worlds, decides impulsively to enter.
Her crime gnaws at her however and eventually she makes her way to the home of the surviving victim who came out of his coma while she was in jail. John Burroughs (Mapother) was a noted composer before the accident; now he mostly is a hermit, uncaring and uncared for. She wants to apologize but is unable to bring herself to do it. Instead, she offers him a free trial housecleaning. After some reluctance, John accepts.
A one day free trial turns into a weekly housecleaning. A relationship begins to form. John begins to awaken from his life coma. Boundaries are crossed. And in the sky another Earth, an exact duplicate to this one inhabited by doppelgangers of the inhabitants of this Earth, becomes large and majestic, a serene, unblinking witness to events on our world.
This was an independent movie that became quite a sensation at this year’s Sundance, prompting a bidding war among distributors. It’s easy to see why. While ostensibly science fiction, this is actually more of a drama about atonement and moving on. However, it can easily also be interpreted about having several other themes, from rebirth to individual uniqueness to personal growth. Pick one; pick ’em all. You won’t be wrong.
The movie is underlit for the most part and sometimes grainy, with a lot of it being shot in the handheld style rather than on a tripod. This gives it a sort of kinetic energy while lending it an almost intimate “home movie” feel. For my own personal taste, a little of that is more effective and too much comes off as pretentious and too self-aware. Fortunately, the filmmakers don’t quite achieve those undesirable qualities.
Mapother is a respected character actor whose face you’ll probably recognize before the name (he is perhaps best known for his recurring character Ethan Rom on the much-missed TV show “Lost”). Here he is the romantic lead, a role that is certainly not one associated with him (even if he is Tom Cruise’s cousin and shares the same amazing smile) in his career to date. He is professorial here – a good thing since his character is a teacher – and vulnerable, obviously marinating in pain. As hope begins as an ember within him, we witness a bit of a transformation – subtle but undeniable.
Marling, who co-wrote the script and also garnered a production credit here has a far more difficult role in many ways and doesn’t quite hit all the right notes, but enough of them to make it a compelling performance. Her Rhoda is drowning in guilt, reaching out for the life preserver of forgiveness and instead finding herself holding on to the anchor of penance. Rhoda is brilliant but as young people are wont to do, makes some egregious mistakes. She becomes obsessed with the consequences of her accident and that obsession leads her to doing things I don’t think most of us would ever consider doing.
There are some beautiful shots of big blue planet Earth 2 hanging in the sky, growing gradually bigger as the movie goes on until it is a presence in the sky bigger than the moon. I like that the movie presented scientific debate on the nature of Earth 2 and asked a number of philosophical questions about the nature of our existence and how it would change if we knew there were doubles of ourselves running around somewhere.
Don’t trouble yourself overly much with questions about the science – asking what the presence of a planet the size of our own in such close proximity would do to our own world (one suspects the tidal forces of the gravity between the two planets would eventually tear both planets apart) or where this previously unknown world came from is not what this movie is all about. Rather, it is about questioning ourselves. Could we ask forgiveness? Could we forgive? Are we truly unique? All questions worth asking.
The final shot is ambiguous enough to remind you that a good filmmaker doesn’t answer your questions; they just inspire you to ask them in the first place. While I might have appreciated a little bit tighter on the editing (shots of Rhoda wringing her hands and looking soulful are only necessary once for a brief moment of time to indicate her anguish), this is nonetheless a very strong effort and indicates to me that we’ll be hearing much more in the future from Cahill, Marling and Mapother.
REASONS TO GO: The story can be interpreted in a whole lot of different ways. Mapother does a great job here.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally submits to “Look, Ma, I’m directing” syndrome. Also has moments of pretentiousness.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s quite a bit of foul language, a little bit of nudity, some drug use and a somewhat disturbing accident sequence..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cahill used his own childhood home in New Haven, Connecticut to double as the Williams home; Rhoda’s bedroom was actually his own.
HOME OR THEATER: While this is out in limited release, some of the vistas of the new planet are spectacular and worth seeing on a big screen.
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
TOMORROW: Big Momma’s House