26 January 2012

Movies: Another Earth

Another Earth (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1549572/

Drama / Sci-fi

17 year old high school student Rhoda discovers she was accepted to MIT. She goes to a party, drinks, drives home. Over the radio she hears a new blue star was discovered in the sky, just east of the North Star. She sticks her head out the window to try to see it.  So you know what happens next.
Right?
Yes, the DUI crash into a stopped car. Unfortunately the stopped car had John, his pregnant wife and their son inside. Tragically the wife and child are killed. John goes in to a coma.  Rhoda is charged and imprisoned.
On the day of her release we find out that what was thought to be a blue star almost four years ago is actually a planet. A blue planet. A planet that exactly resembles our Earth, continents and oceans-wise. After Rhoda's release she decides to take on a janitorial job at the local high school. Something she can do with her hands, something where she doesn't have to interact with others much.
On the fourth anniversary of the car crash she goes to the accident location. While she sits there experiencing whatever inner turmoil one experiences in her situation a truck pulls up. She sees John get out and put down a child's toy in memoriam. Her guilt drives her to find out more about him. She tracks down his house.
-= pause review =-
I stop to mention that at this point in the film I leaned over to my wife and whispered ominously, "She's gonna finish what she started four years ago." Wife didn't appreciate it. She thinks I should shut up during films. Can you blame her?
-= end pause =-
Rhoda builds up enough courage to knock on John's door, she wants to apologize for ruining his life. When he answers she chickens out and makes up a story about being a maid service that is giving potential customers a free cleaning as a try-out.  It is apparent that John doesn't have any clue who she is. His house is a shambles, much of what you would expect from a man who wakes from a coma to find out his wife and son were killed and now drowns himself in alcohol and mourning every day. John lets her have a shot at the cleaning. She sticks to her story and goes in and makes up some feeble lies about why she's not carrying any cleaning supplies. But he's so out of it I doubt he noticed much. He decides he wants to hire her for weekly service.
So, on top of janitorial work at the high school she is now cleaning his house. She isn't cleaning John's house for money, she's doing penance, trying to assuage her guilt. She tears up the checks.
She's also applied via essay for a contest to be one of the passengers on the first trip to the alternate Earth, sponsored by some rich dude that just happens to seem somewhat like a certain Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic. I'm sure that wasn't intentional (cough).

This film is a character drama, a redemption drama. We watch Rhoda's grappling with the radiating impact of her actions on her life and John's. Of course we know that her working regularly for John is a bad idea and can only lead to trouble, but she does it anyhow. Her guilt overrides her ability to decide to do the rational thing.  The sci-fi? Well, there are no spaceships or nukes lobbed from orbit or invading aliens or anything. It isn't that sort of sci-fi movie.

The sci-fi component comes from the approach and appearance of another Earth. Through most of the film it is just something happening in the background to the main story, but not really a main story driver. The exception is in the "introduction" and the "falling action" portion of the dramatic structure of the script, where the other Earth's existence is indispensable to the story. It starts the tragedy and ultimately provides the path to the end of the film.
All discussion we hear about whether the other Earth actually exists or not, parallels between the two worlds, the planned flight to explore there, takes place in the background. All are usually overheard from TV and radio news reports. However there is practically no attempt to explain it's sudden appearance, its approach to our Earth, it's seeming to "park" where it stops, why the crescent shadow on its surface seems to appear on either side, nor why there are no gravitational side-effects.  One has to suspend disbelief to get past those niggling details, which is probably going to be tougher for the folks who know to ask those questions. To their credit the did make nighttime brighter from the other Earth's shine.

It is that "other" kind of science fiction. The story isn't about the science or speculative science. The story is the character drama being played out. True the other Earth is important at the start and the finish of the film, but the movie isn't really about the other Earth. The film is about lives, impacts, and new questions. One has to overlook the physical impacts of such an event otherwise they will be stuck in a dead end that obscures the core of the film.

Despite the film following dramatic structure almost exactly, presenting a character story that unfolds rather much as predicted, I really enjoyed the film. I can see already that the "denouement" is going to anger some folks.  Like or hate the ending, the ending isn't the whole film.

So, if you're in a mood for sci-fi of the action/adventure/explosions/aliens/pew-pew type, don't watch this, it isn't any of those at all. If you're in the mood for a character drama with (or without) a light sci-fi backdrop, this should fit the bill quite nicely. It is sort of in the ballpark with "Never Let Me Go" in that respect, that is, a drama that does have a science fiction air about it but not akin to what most folks consider to be sci-fi.

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Oh crap I forgot to mention that William Mapother plays John. You might remember him as Ethan the Claire-stealer from Lost, though he's shown up in lots of other stuff. By the way, he is Tom Cruise's cousin.  Brit Marling plays Rhoda. She's also a co-writer of the script. I recognized her from the "Community" valentines-day episode in season two where she plays a gal that Britta hangs out with because Britta thinks the gal is a lesbian and it turns out that the gal thought the same of Britta. That was her only TV appearance. She's been in four other films to date, none of which I've ever seen.

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