The relatively new concept of parallel universes – the theory that space and time are so infinite that everything must reoccur, even you and your “unique” life – is many things. It’s a theoretical exercise, as there is absolutely no mathematical possibility that we could ever contact these other universes. It’s groundbreaking – even the ability to calculate how far away another Earth is from ourselves has only recently become close to possible. But above all else, it’s an existential idea that’s the embodiment of ego: If I’m living, or have lived, or will live this life again somewhere out there, what does that mean for me? Do my choices even matter? Was Vincent Van Gogh right and the essence of love is eternal? What about me?
Thanks to people like string theorist Brian Greene and MIT physics professor Max Tegmark, art has new, somewhat solid ground from which to springboard its ideas without requiring too much -fi in its sci-. Another Earth may be the first film to capitalize on the new authority of parallel worlds (though it’s an idea that hardly waited for validation; it’s found its way into everything from H.G. Wells to Lost), albeit with one huge logical leap: “Earth 2,” as it’s called, is in our orbit.
This stunning revelation comes about one fateful night when physics student Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling, also a co-writer) has a little too much to drink and gets behind the wheel. An obnoxious DJ announces the far-off presence of the heretofore-unknown Earth 2 and beckons drivers to look far up into the sky to have a look. At that moment, she plows into music professor John Burroughs’ car (William Mapother in a breakout role) with his pregnant wife and young son in it.
Burroughs and Williams are the sole survivors, and she spends the next four years in jail. Upon her release, seeking escape and penitence, she takes up as a janitor. Burroughs sinks into depression and alcoholism. Hoping to apologize, Williams knocks on his door, but chickens out and poses as a maid offering a free house cleaning. (It’s not as sexy as that setup sounds.)
A relationship forms, one marked by guilt, deception and genuine affection. These are two lost souls clinging to each other for lack of better options. Earth 2 has become an everyday presence, but when the U.S. government makes contact in a world-televised event – a scene both thrilling and terrifying – and a Richard Branson-esque stargazer offers a ride up to our parallel world, the stakes are raised beyond the atmosphere.
Somehow, Marling and director/co-writer Mike Cahill keep the sci-fi aspect deep in the background in order to focus on the heartbreaking drama at the fore without sacrificing an ounce of exposition or a sliver of propulsion. Famously shot on a shoestring $150K budget, the film looks absolutely stunning. Aside from a grainy sequence involving Marling and a lot of snow – the least necessary scene, to boot – Cahill picks his shots carefully, economically and emotionally, an essential and masterful needle-threading that both maintains the mood and preserves cash.
It’s baffling how neatly – almost too neatly – the romantic and sci-fi storylines are resolved. Like magicians, Cahill, Marling and Mapother show everything we need to see – a ticket, a girl, rage here, empathy there – to sell Another Earth’s mirror-image metaphor and to appreciate its gentle redemption song. It’s a work as worthy of its sci-fi predecessors as it is forward-looking.