Indie sci-fi drama Another Earth substitutes ideas, imagination for CG eye candy 

It is around this time every year that, amongst the hit-or-miss summer movie season, one or two films will descend from Sundance to break up the monotony. While Another Earth isn’t the landmark that 2010’s Sundance sensation Winter’s Bone proved to be, it is certainly an achievement. An award-winner in Park City and the closing feature of this year’s Nashville Film Festival, Another Earth is an indie sci-fi drama with an idea bigger than its budget — a refreshing discovery at a time when Hollywood’s output tends to have it the other way around.

As the obvious title promises (that it has in common with its marquee-mates), it seems a mirror planet has appeared in the sky above earth. On the night Earth 1 notices its sequel, Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling) is driving home from a celebration of her acceptance to MIT’s astrophysics program. Distracted by the other earth, and impaired by a few celebratory drinks, she never sees John Burroughs (William Mapother) and his family sitting unaware at a red light.

After serving four years for the resulting charges, Rhoda is released from prison, and from then on Another Earth is an affecting examination of grief, guilt and the what-if anxiety brought on by the apparent confirmation of the multiverse in the night sky. Rhoda finds John, intent on apologizing, but is unable to confess her identity. Instead, she says she is there to offer house-cleaning services.

Anyone who has hoped that well-done chores could atone for past sins will recognize the effort she puts into the task. Think back to a wrong turn at a fork in your own life’s road, and you may understand her decision to enter an essay contest for a trip to Earth 2 as well.

Wisely, the filmmakers leave the intriguing sci-fi premise in the sky, focusing on the real-life elements on the ground. Still, earth’s floating double makes for a stunning (albeit a tad overused) image – indeed, the last time a fictional celestial body has been placed in the sky so matter-of-factly, two suns were setting on Tatooine. The sci-fi hook also allows for two of the film’s two most memorable moments. One is a scientist’s attempt to make contact with Earth 2 (a colleague called this the best scene of the year and I’m inclined to agree); the other is the film’s arresting final shot. (Many will say they saw it coming – I don’t believe them.)

The film’s flaws are typical of an ambitious debut – it's overwrought at times and weakened by on-the-nose metaphors – but it succeeds in ways that many such films don’t, offering both soul and imagination. Like Winter’s Bone, it introduces a promising young talent: Marling, who also co-wrote the film with director Mike Cahill.

The gravity of Another Earth may weaken with distance and time. Questions of plausibility and scientific accuracy are sure to arise, but don’t entertain them. In an alternate universe, there is likely a big-budget version of this film where heart and soul are replaced with 3D eye-candy – a what-if we should not wish to explore.

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