Movies can’t just blow your mind with zooming X-Wings anymore. They need to blow it on a completely different level, with a totally mind-fucking story to go along with all the fancy CGI effects. From The Matrix‘s bit-rate reality to Donnie Darko‘s time-traveling teenage angst to Inception‘s multilevel dreamscapes, it’s just as much about assaulting your brain as it is your senses these days.
In the opening scene of the low-budget, pretentious, and arthouse version of a mind-blower Another Earth, graduating high-schooler Rhoda Williams (played by the movie’s co-writer Brit Marling) spends a night partying with friends. She caps her celebration by drunkenly plowing her car into a family at a stoplight. By the time Rhoda is released from prison four years later, an alternate planet – which looks exactly like Earth and, from all appearances, is an alternate Earth – has surfaced in the sky.
Rhoda’s a smart girl, but as a form of personal penance she takes a job as a school janitor, mopping floors and scrubbing toilets. She’s still haunted by what happened, so one day she musters the courage to track down the only survivor of the accident: John Burroughs, a former college music professor who’s a drunken mess ever since his son and pregnant wife died.
She doesn’t tell him who she is. Instead she starts cleaning his house, and slowly a relationship begins. Rhoda also enters an essay contest to be a passenger on the first flight to Earth II. To her surprise – being an ex-con and all – she wins and begins prepping for her big day.
There’s no big spectacle to Another Earth, despite its mind-blowing premise. It’s quiet, reflective, and a personal drama wrapped in the hue of a sci-fi parable. In fact, the movie’s otherworldly shadings are almost a subplot to the philosophical ramblings about starting over. And like any mind-blower worth its plot twists, Another Earth opens itself up to a whole lot of questions.
The issues here go deep: Is there another person, exactly like you, out there somewhere in the cosmos? And if so, did he or she make the same mistakes in their life? Director Mike Cahill (the other co-writer) slowly layers the big questions as he peels away the existential hearts of the characters. Too bad Another Earth gets so caught up in its heavy-handedness and ends just when it gets interesting.
Probing, pretentious, and most of all talky, the movie is stuffed with allegorical characters and metaphorical plot devices. Everything means something; cleaning houses isn’t just about cleaning houses. John’s musical-saw performance isn’t just about him getting his life back in order. And the mounting paranoia surrounding Earth II means a whole lot more than little green men attacking our world. What’s out there? And do we really want to know? For a movie filled with so much implausibility, Another Earth takes itself way too seriously.