Thanks to Ella Donald for this very special edition to The Forgotten, complete with video essay! You can read more of Ella’s writing here [Ed].
In 2011, a film made for only a fraction of most (including many in its genre), premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and became the most talked about premiere that year, winning the Alfred P. Sloan prize. Shot over the course of a year for around $100 000, using director Mike Cahill’s hometown of New Haven, a lot of favours, and funding from non-profit organisation Artists Public Domain, Another Earth continued the post-Primer low-budget, philosophical sci-fi trend of the digital filmmaking age. 2011 was a year of many excellent films, and Another Earth, one that has since slipped out of the conversation, is one of the best.
The film opens in the middle of an important moment in Rhoda (Brit Marling, who also wrote the film with Cahill)’s life – she’s just been accepted into university (MIT, to be specific). Like many young people, she is celebrating in a typical fashion – at a party with friends. Edited rapidly to resemble strobe lighting, representing the patchy memories that remain from that night in Rhoda’s mind, the prologue serves to provide a context to the two events that are the catalysts for the films events – the discovery of Earth 2, and the car crash, which occurs in a moment of hypnosis akin to that she describes in the voiceover. After colliding with a car containing a family, the cutting changes to less frenetic. Now more lucid in terms of visuals, by the end of the opening scenes, Another Earth shows that this event is of a great significance, and that they will not be forgotten.
Rhoda, of course, ends up in a prison cell, left only with the thoughts of the events that just occurred, years passing outside of her control. It’s now that the first objective of Earth 2 become apparent – time has passed, Rhoda’s world has changed around her, but not much else has been discovered about the planet. Simply put, Rhoda’s life has been placed on pause for the duration of her imprisonment while everything else but Earth 2 has evolved, allowing her to focus on something that remains unchanged, offering the same mystery and promise as it did four years prior, also being drawn to another person that she knows was also stuck in a time warp by the accident – John Burroughs (William Mapother), the driver of the car and the lone survivor.
This, combined the second objective, the obvious idea that another Earth brings questions of a second chance at life, whether life on the duplicate planet has taken the same course, of redemption. This brings about the definition of reinvention that occurs within the film. This process is best described as belated, rapid adolescence. Due to her life being paused at a time when it was only really beginning, Rhoda merely resumes from where she was removed from normality, except no longer having the security or success she once had (her admission into MIT), that comprised her identity. By removing that, all that remains is Rhoda’s extensive knowledge, not grounded in models of the planets or textbooks, which now feel juvenile and represent an opportunity long passed, but instead genuine interest, the bare bones of her life.
And so begins the process of maturity, of rediscovery outside of what had likely been seemingly predestined for most of her life. She builds from the ground up, starting with a plain white room with only a mattress and a photograph of stars. She’s isolated, alienated from her friends she once knew, finding her place in the world like a teenager does, making the character especially resonant through behaviour that most people could identify with. She experiments socially, finding a friend she wouldn’t have probably encountered in her past life, and sexually, getting hurt along the way. Starting off in solitude, Rhoda ends up doing the very thing that will being people to her, finding herself through filling her world with more, even if she is avoiding certain things in doing so.
It’s around the time, as Rhoda turns on a light in an empty attic, filling her blank canvas of a room with fresh flowers and nothing from her old room/life, a variety of questions are raised, boiling down to a crucial one – what does the presence of Earth 2 add to the narrative?
Rhoda desires to move forward from the tragedy, finding a new normal, whatever that may end up being. But while, as previously stated, Earth 2 is a chance at a new beginning, at redemption, it’s a temptation, an ‘easy way out’ of sorts that, in some circumstances, looks like the only option.
This serves as the starting point for some of Another Earth’s most fascinating qualities. In being the road less travelled, the presence of Earth 2 communicates an important commonality about the human experience – everyone has experienced the presence of an Earth 2 of sorts in their life, which presents an easy way out and by taking them, the problem at hand is solved, instead of avoiding it.
By incorporating a much explored scientific concept with such typical experiences, Cahill creates a film that become achingly relatable to the viewer, intensified by the choice of a teenager as the protagonist. In combining this with the discovery of a duplicate Earth as a major plot point, Cahill doesn’t just make a science fiction film, but also illustrates the often-aching loneliness and regret found in everyday life in an interesting new light. Regardless of age or events in the individual’s life, starting mostly at adolescence, one becomes more self-aware of experiences thus far and appearance, creating common feelings of regret and the desire to have a new beginning. Whether it’s being excited about starting at a new school, job or changing style and interests, humans constantly crave a second chance, the ability to change into someone else that isn’t affected by preconceived ideas. Whether through new living areas or the pursuit of preexisting or new relationships in a bolder, more aggressive manner, Another Earth exemplifies this shedding of skin, the desire for freedom to escape the past.
Another Earth’s most common criticism in fact is the blending of the personal and impersonal, the journey of discovery and science, but is in fact what makes it such a powerful and unique journey. Often sci-fi exists outside of a personal context, in one that is detatched from the viewer, but here Cahill and Marling blend the two so deftly that they compliment each other, creating a film that’s so realistic and deeply felt in a typically emotionally detached genre. The first of Marling’s 2011 breakouts (in her other Sundance film, Sound of My Voice, directed by Zal Batmanglij, another friend of hers, she plays a cult leader who claims to be from the future), Another Earth is the subtler role of the pair. Lonely and isolated for the first half of the film, Marling’s scene partner is silence, having to speak her backstory and journey through gesture and facial expression. Even when Mapother enters once the premise has been established, there are stretches without dialogue; the majority of their relationship is played out in silence, small moments and gestures that show understanding and connection more than words could.
Another Earth is a film that is so small, so quiet, with no big, show off scene to easily summarise it, to show the power of the craft behind it, which is probably why its been forgotten. It’s lo-fi style, slow pace, and unconventional premise may not be for all tastes, but for those willing to persevere, to open their heart to it and consider what has been laid out in front of them, it becomes a unique emotional experience, not only a different way of exploring regret, but also the classic coming of age film.
Video essay: https://vimeo.com/119836466
By Ella Donald.
Follow Ella on Twitter @_pingus