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Movie Review: Another Earth

'Another Earth' makes us look harder at our own
Another Earth
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 92 min
MPAA rating: PG-13
Release Date: 2011-07-22
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By "Lawrence Toppman"
The Charlotte Observer

When I was 4 years old, my mom read me Hans Christian Andersen’s tale about the ugly duckling who throws himself in desperation at swans. Instead of killing him, as he expects, they explain that he has found the flock that will love and nurture him forever.

“But the duck lived next to a frozen lake,” I protested. “Wouldn’t he have seen his reflection in the ice and already realized he was a swan?”

She stared at me, sighed and handed me the book. “Son,” she said, “you are old enough to read to yourself.”

You’ll have to put aside all such ugly duckling questions to appreciate “Another Earth.” When a second planet exactly like ours suddenly appears in the nearby sky, do not ask why astronomers have never noticed it before, why it exerts no effect on tides or climates, why nobody seems freaked out by this sphere, why the movie never mentions government activity.

If you obsess over this – if you even allow yourself to consider it in a sidelong way – you won’t be able to appreciate the deeply emotional story behind this bizarre idea.

Director Mike Cahill, who wrote the script with star Brit Marling, uses Earth 2 purely for speculation. If its people are duplicates of us, as the movie’s evidence suggests, did they make the same mistakes we did? Can we change our unhappy lives in that alternate world? Can we learn from – or at least be cheered by – our “other selves” there, who have found joy while we remain mired in pain?

The young woman asking these questions, Rhoda Williams (Marling), drank too much the night she was accepted to M.I.T. and killed a mother and son with her car.

She gets out of prison four years later, wishing to hide in the bosom of her family and her anonymous job as a high school custodian. Guilt drives her to atone for the accident by cleaning the house of the widower, composer and former college professor John Burroughs (William Mapother). He has spent four years in a physical coma, then an emotional one. Her friendship begins to bring him out, but she dares not reveal who she is.

The deliberate editing and quirky cinematography (both done by Cahill) sometimes seem at odds with each other but never get in the way of the story’s honesty. The filmmakers show us how two people crushed by tragedy slowly get back on their feet emotionally, like swimmers struggling to reach the surface of the ocean from a terrible depth.

John and Rhoda connect first through violence, playing a computer boxing game and releasing tension vicariously. Tenderness seems far away, but the looming presence of unseen other selves on Earth 2 inspires them to ponder how things might have been – or might still be.

Marling’s low-key performance anchors the film. She’s in virtually every scene, and her face (which looks stunning or plain from different angles – is always expressive, though she says little. Rhoda longs to leap literally into space, to wipe out the past with one jump into a new future. And who among us can fail to understand that dream?

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8/18/2011 - The Charlotte Observer - Lawrence Toppman

Two people linked by a tragic auto accident try to rebuild their psyches in the shadow of a second Earth that offers a possible alternative life.

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