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Back-Up Planet

film_filmCool premise never gets off the ground in 'Another Earth'

Rod Serling always used to say he conceived of "The Twilight Zone" as a forum for telling stories about the human condition thinly disguised as fantasy/sci-fi. The speculative film, Another Earth, attempts to set out in the same direction, offering up a very slightly science-fictionalized version of our present world to explore such larger thematic human issues as life, death, guilt, and forgiveness. Unfortunately, the film never quite gets where it's going. There's a lyrical eeriness to the storytelling, especially the handling of the sci-fi element. But the day-to-day details of the characters' lives are often unconvincing, while the thematic elements never quite resonate enough.

A big hit at Sundance this year, Another Earth was co-written by actress Brit Marling, who also stars, and Mike Cahill, who directs.

The story begins on the night scientists around the world discover the presence of a second earth-like planet in the night sky. And not just any old planet, but a planet that appears to be a "mirror image" of ours. Almost immediately commentators label it "Earth 2."

On the night the discovery of Earth 2 is announced, 17-year-old Rhoda Williams (Marling) is out celebrating her acceptance to MIT. A brainy student who's always had her eye on the cosmos, Rhoda is planning to become an astrophysicist. But Fate has other plans, and  tragedy strikes in a way that guarantees Rhoda's next four years will be spent in an entirely different learning environment—state prison. By the time she gets out, Earth 2 is looming much larger, and the probability that it is, indeed, a parallel world identical to ours consumes science, the media, and the public.

Back at her parents' home in suburban Connecticut, but estranged from her previous self, Rhoda gets a janitorial job at a local high school, too benumbed by guilt to pick up her old life, much less conceive of a future. Most of the plot concerns her evolving relationship with John Burroughs (William Mapother), a down-and-out former Yale music professor whose life she inadvertently destroyed; intending to confess and apologize, she loses her nerve and becomes his house cleaner instead. She desperately needs to atone, and he needs to reconnect, but she's afraid to reveal the secret that links them, and their relationship takes a few odd twists and turns, not all of them credible. Meanwhile, a billionaire with his own space shuttle sponsors a "Win a trip to Earth 2" contest that obsesses Rhoda with the possibility of starting over.

Cahill's film background has mostly been in documentaries and special effects, and there's an edgy, cinema verité look to a lot of the scenes, especially when Rhoda is off on her own, walking around town or on the commuter train, struggling to come to terms with herself and her memories. In contrast, various landscape vistas with the second blue earth hovering in the sky over the sea, or peeking out of the clouds, are lush and poetic. Actress Marling has written herself a memorable role; her character is onscreen throughout (often in tight close-up as she struggles with her interior demons), and the entire story proceeds from her viewpoint. For a character without a lot of dialogue, Marling conveys much, achieving often remarkable gradations of tentative feeling beneath the protective numbness with which she tries to smother her guilt.

But the story never quite adds up. As an allegory, it's unclear how a duplicate Earth could offer the promise of redemption if it's inhabited by our exact doubles, living the same lives and making the same mistakes. The question that so preoccupies everyone in the movie—what would you say to your double?—would be more compelling if the film_anotherearthdoubles on Earth 2 were living alternative lives (although there is a wry moment when Rhoda says she'd tell her alternate self, "Better luck next time"). Her relationship with John also feels more scripted and shoehorned into place than organic, while other, mundane details ring jarringly false (like the blind Indian shaman-guide who, improbably, works as a janitor at the school).

Another Earth conveys an intriguing sense of mood, but the devil is in the details when it comes to selling a story, sci-fi or otherwise.

ANOTHER EARTH

★★1/2 out of four  Watch film trailer >>>

With Brit Marling and William Mapother. Written by Brit Marling and Mike Cahill. Directed by Mike Cahill. A Fox Searchlight release. Rated PG-13. 92 minutes.

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