What if there was another planet exactly like earth? And I do mean exactly: same physicality, same countries, same history. And the same people. There is another you on another planet, doing the exact same things you are doing and have done. Would that be possible? Would the other you have made the same mistakes? And if not, does that mean you could rectify yours? Such grand philosophical questions are explored in Mike Cahill's remarkable fiction film debut, Another Earth. Co-written with star Brit Marling, it is exactly the kind of great science fiction film that is seen too infrequently: the kinds that deals with the philosophical as much as the scientific, and the real human impact of the present and the future.
Marling plays Rhoda, a bright young scientist who has just been accepted to MIT. Unfortunately, she makes the grave error of driving while drunk and kills a woman and her son, and leaving the husband in a coma. We meet Rhoda again after she has spent four years in prison. She has become withdrawn, and chooses to work as a cleaner in relative isolation. By chance, she comes across the husband, John (William Malthorpe), whose life she ruined, and attempts to make amends without his knowledge. All the while, more information is learnt about the strange Earth 2, which seems to be a duplicate of our Earth, right down to the people.
Given than Cahill's previous works have been documentaries, it is not surprising that he brings some of this aesthetic to the film. He follows Rhoda as if she were a documentary subject, and Marling gives such a sad honesty to her character that one can imagine both oneself in her place, and imagine the Rhoda from Earth 2 who perhaps might not have made the same mistake. John, meanwhile, has little interest in Earth 2; another him means another life of loss and pain. We catch glimpses of what Rhoda used to be like before the accident: enthusiastic about and mesmerised by space, her sin has not diminished her enthusiasm, but her hope. Her need for forgiveness is overwhelming, and she pretends to be from a cleaning service in order to gain access to John's home and life. John, an accomplished musician, has pretty much given up on life. Daytime is harsh and bright; but in John's home, it feels like night, where Rhoda can watch and dream of the stars again, and John be blind to his seemingly perpetual loneliness. As Rhoda cleans, John slowly begins to rediscover himself. As she does her penance cleaning her house, and John sees the life that he had buried under bottles, each begins to find some redemption and perhaps a bit of hope as well. Both Marling and Malthorpe play this slow crescendo beautifully; bit by bit each comes out of their shell, and none of their actions feel forced or insignificant.
Early science fiction dealt with other planets and creatures with grandiosity. Contemporary science fiction looks inward to the human heart's reactions. Cahill effortlessly combines the epicness of a second earth with the intimacy of a quietly tragic and yet hopeful story.