Suggesting an extended “Twilight Zone” episode by way of a grief-therapy two-hander, “Another Earth” offers a jagged and distinctive vision. Cosmic yet intimate, Mike Cahill’s shoestring sci-fier concerns a young woman taking highly unorthodox steps to make amends for a terrible crime, letting go of the past by gambling on an uncertain future. Out there, to say the least, but rescued from risibility by its well-matched lead performances and crazy low-budget ambition, the film is destined for a limited commercial voyage, though a certain subset of young, geek-literate romantics will surely take it to heart.
In an impressionistic opening sequence, news breaks that a long-hidden 10th planet — a duplicate Earth — has been discovered orbiting the sun. That same night, hard-partying MIT student Rhoda (Brit Marling) gets behind the wheel of an SUV and — in a scene shot from overhead and achieved through ingenious compositing — plows head-on into another vehicle. Rhoda lives, but the other car’s passengers aren’t so lucky; a boy and his pregnant mother are killed, while the father survives but remains in a coma.
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Four years later, Rhoda is released from prison and returns home to her family in West Haven, Conn. Morose, withdrawn and suicidal, Rhoda wants nothing to do with anyone until she learns that the crash survivor, former Yale music professor John Burroughs (William Mapother), has just regained consciousness. By this point, “Earth 2” now looms huge in the sky both day and night, and a company called United Space Adventures has announced an essay contest, the winner of which will be the first person to visit the new planet.
What happens next — a fearful Rhoda visits John under the pretext of offering a free-trial cleaning service, and he reluctantly lets her into his shattered life — is the stuff of a hundred Sundance-ready relationship pics about bonding, forgiveness and (clunky symbolism alert) cleansing. But by framing this dour, masochistic melodrama in the context of speculative fiction, first-time writer-helmer Cahill has made the story at once more ludicrous and vastly more intriguing. Flirting with the idea that anything is possible in a parallel universe, even second chances, “Another Earth” builds to a kicker that’s effective in no small part because our expectations about exactly what kind of film we’re watching have been so consistently upended.
Grounding the proceedings in emotional reality, beautiful newcomer Marling (who co-wrote the script with Cahill and produced) projects complex feelings through an outward veil of misery. Mapother is entirely sympathetic as an older man who’s suffered so much that the viewer feels instinctively protective of him.
Cahill (not to be confused with the same-named “King of California” helmer) shot the pic himself on a handheld HD camera, using a nearly monochrome palette of chilly blues, greens and grays to fittingly otherworldly effect. Though a less wobbly, more classical aesthetic wouldn’t have detracted from the result, the darting, zooming camerawork does supply a vibrant, youthful energy, borne out by a Fall on Your Sword score that provides continual sonic stimulation.
Pic makes a virtue of its limited resources, selling the illusion of a groundbreaking scientific discovery just enough for audiences to accept it as a hypothetical premise; the scene that reveals the precise nature of life on Earth 2 raises serious goosebumps with little more than low-grade TV footage. Spare visual effects are impressively handled, and the recurring sight of another Earth, hovering above the horizon of this one, reps the sort of poetic, brazenly illogical image one could contemplate for hours.