What if? What if Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling), a student who had been accepted into MIT’s astrophysics program, had never driven while intoxicated? What if the highly praised composer, John Burroughs (William Mapother), had not been on the road with his wife, son, and unborn child that night? What if Rhoda had not been looking out her car window at a parallel earth that appeared in the night sky when they fatally met in the intersection?
These are the questions that plague both Rhoda and John, whose lives take a dark turn, pushing both into a timeline that appears without promise. Rhoda, now a convict, decides not to pursue MIT and to take on the life of cleaning a high school for catharsis. John embraces a future of perpetual loneliness and anger.
Every decision, however, has unpredictable outcomes.
After Rhoda serves her time in jail as a juvenile, she attempts to make amends and visits John. When he opens the door, however, she loses her nerve. She lies about who she is and this begins the story of a love affair between two, lost people.
Earth 2, which is a duplicate of ours, down to the cities and lives of the people that live on it, taunts Rhoda. What if life had turned out differently? Would it be possible that her other self made better choices and went on to MIT? Could John’s life be whole on the other earth? The possibility of finding those answers occurs when one of the two is presented with a chance to travel to Earth 2.
Theories of alternate earths, where other versions of us have made similar or entirely different decisions from our own, are staples of science fiction and the serious questions of physics. The math of String Theory (see my review of The Hidden Reality), for example, appears to all-but-guarantee the probability of the multiverse. Other versions of you or me in these parallel worlds are following our adventures we never took.
There can be positives; perhaps Rhoda never killed John’s family or John never destroyed his career through a life of self-loathing, but what if we made even worse decisions? Would we want to know?
If one is determined to watch a scientifically accurate movie, then there are plenty of criticisms to be had for Another Earth. Director Mike Cahill takes a shortcut, asking us to suspend some plausibility for the sake of a good story. The viewer takes the leap into an alternate universe where two identical earths, complete with our duplicates, can inhabit the same solar system and the science of our universe doesn’t get in the way.
The real story in this movie is between two people looking for resolution and transformation. The parallel earth is merely the setting to that bigger story. In fact, aside from the initial first contact, the Earth 2 remains only a beautiful backdrop in the sky. There are no scenes in space, no explosions and thrill rides that tend to make up a science fiction movie. There are even few lines. Little are needed as both Brit Marling and William Mapother capture the pain and hopes of their characters without the need to tell it.
Made on a low budget ($200,000), Another Earth premiered at Sundance in 2011, winning the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize (among others). It is a fantastic story. The viewer is reminded that you cannot part with the bad consequences of your actions, but that does not mean you are bound to a future of repetition.