A few months ago, a class I was taking had granted me the opportunity to attend a lecture from Brian Greene. For those who don’t already know the name, Greene is commonly known as one of the world’s foremost authorities on theoretical physics. And he had come to Portland to talk about quantum theory. Despite having no flair for physics myself, I was intrigued to learn about parallel universes from the man who literally wrote the book about them, especially after a lifetime of seeing parallel universes used as a plot device in science fiction.
The way Greene talked about it, he effectively said that science fiction treatments of the subject have traditionally presented the theory entirely wrong: Parallel universes don’t exist on the other side of some weird membrane — they actually exist out in space.
The idea is that if you accept the universe as a finite enclosure — albeit an enormous one — floating in infinite space, then it follows that there’s enough space out there for an infinite number of universes. Additionally, if so much of what formed this universe was due to chance, and if two or more separate universes proceeded to grow independently, then the chances are virtually nil that they would end up identically. Therefore, there must be an infinite number of different universes.
Personally, I think it’s a load of tripe.
The whole theory depends on the notions that 1) the universe is finite, 2) space is infinite, and 3) there are multiple universes in space. All three of these notions — so far as I know — are impossible to prove conclusively. Even with the gift of faster-than-light travel, it could potentially take centuries to reach the edge of the universe, and centuries more to find another universe out there. Oh, and let’s not forget the return trip. Let the physicists do their navel-gazing, I’ll stick with science that can actually provide some shred of evidence, thanks very much.
Anyway, as dubious as the accepted notion of parallel universes may be, science fiction authors have long been intrigued with the concept, and understandably so. The device is not only a bottomless pit of storytelling possibilities and means of exploring that all-important question “what if?” but it also allows comic book companies and certain sci-fi franchises to keep multiple continuities ongoing and profitable all at once. Sometimes, it can even provide a neat way for time-travel stories to avoid paradoxes.
The only slight drawback to these parallel universe stories is that they occasionally rely on some perversion of quantum theory. Tonight’s movie doesn’t have that problem at all. In fact, it disregards science pretty much entirely.
Another Earth begins with the discovery of a planet nearly identical to Earth, visible as a tiny blue dot in the sky. Meanwhile, 17-year-old Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling, also a producer and co-writer) has just gotten accepted into MIT and is partying it up. She gets drunk, gets behind the wheel of a car, and collides head-on with a family. The son and his mother are both killed, the father goes into a coma, and Rhoda gets locked up for four years.
When the time comes, Rhoda leaves prison to find that the little blue dot in the sky is now a planet clearly visible from Earth. And this is where the movie’s total lack of scientific authenticity starts to become apparent. Seriously, just look at this. That isn’t meant to be some kind of optical illusion, either: The movie clearly states that this other planet has mass. Which means that it has gravity. It doesn’t take a PhD in astrophysics to figure out that an Earth-sized planet with Earth-norm gravity coming in such close proximity to this Earth would essentially mean the destruction of both planets. Hell, it would probably be enough to throw the entire solar system out of whack. And furthermore, how did that planet get to be so big when it was just a speck before? Did it travel such a long distance over only four years? There’s no possible way for that to make sense.
Equally perplexing is how this planet is still so completely unknown four years after its discovery. I can understand how this new planet is all that anyone can talk or think about at the time of Rhoda’s release, but I can’t understand why it took the world’s leaders so goddamn long to open communications. Hell, the news that “Earth 2″ is populated by mirror versions of us isn’t learned until halfway through the movie, and the notion that these people would be slightly different is only presented as mere conjecture at the time of the climax!
Rhoda enters a contest to win a trip to Earth 2, but the movie never goes there. There’s an endless amount of speculation as to how life might be different up there, or what this discovery means for people on Earth 1, but no answers are given. In point of fact, just as we the audience are about to actually learn a few of these things, the movie cuts to black and rolls credits.
The bottom line is that the movie handles its science fiction aspect very poorly. Instead, the movie decides to focus heavily on its two main characters.
First among them is obviously Rhoda. Without saying a single word, she makes it clear from the word go that she’s left prison a very different person. For one thing, she’s clearly been spending every day of the past four years thinking about what she did and wishing she could take it back. Furthermore, the world itself has become a very different place and she spends the movie trying to cope with that. Case in point: Her old friends — and even her douchebag brother — are all moving off to college, and she’s a felon fresh out of jail whom no school or employer would ever accept. And even if her old MIT-worthy credentials were worth a shit anymore, Rhoda has become so depressed and withdrawn that she won’t even try to be anything more than a high-school janitor.
Naturally, her guilt trip leads her to the discovery that John Burroughs (William Mapother), the man Rhoda widowed and put into a coma, is still alive. He’s since become a shell of a man, a lethargic shut-in who can only surround himself in his own filth. While trying to face him and apologize, Rhoda loses her nerve. She instead lies about working for a cleaning company and offers to work as his maid. She starts dropping by on a regular basis to clean his house and covertly tears up any paychecks he offers. They of course befriend each other, though their friendship is built on a lie. It’s an old story that hits all the beats you’d expect it to, and yet it works.
A lot of what makes the relationship effective is in its strategic use of metaphors. For example, the very setting of John’s house serves as a strong visual metaphor for the mental and emotional recuperation of our protagonists. Our characters also demonstrate their newly-found vivacity with a rousing game of Wii Boxing. Also, John was a composer before he became a shut-in, so his rediscovery of music also plays a part. As for Rhoda, the nagging guilt over her ongoing lie is elegantly expressed with a story about a Russian cosmonaut.
Really, Earth 2 is primarily utilized as yet another way for Rhoda and John to heal from tragedy together. They both feel completely alienated, so what if there was another place — indeed another planet — where they could go to start over? They’re the only two people who have any idea of what was lost in that car crash, but what if there were two others on the other planet who would know exactly what they were going through? The “parallel universe” point is only ever used to explore such themes as loneliness, identity, mourning, redemption, hope and uncertainty. The movie limits the scope of the premise to just these two characters, which augments the movie’s thematic depth. However, the movie also hints at the larger implications of this discovery, which sadly called for a more epic scale that this movie was clearly unable to deliver. Thus, the movie’s laser-sharp focus is done to the movie’s benefit and also — to a lesser extent — its detriment.
On a technical level, the movie is damn good for an amateur production that only cost 200 grand. Even if the plot is somewhat predictable, the writing is very sharp. The score is wonderful, especially since it has to carry so many “internal drama” moments. The editing is quite clever in places and the camerawork is clearly handheld, which lends the film an intimate “cinema verite” feel. This is Mike Cahill’s feature directing debut, and I sincerely hope he gets to play with a bigger budget someday soon. As for our lead actors, they both showcased their characters’ developments beautifully, and their chemistry together was pitch-perfect.
Oh, and did I mention that Brit Marling is beautiful? Because she’s beautiful in this movie.
I know it sounds like a cop-out to say that a movie demands adjusted expectations or a huge suspension of disbelief, but Another Earth really does need both. Don’t expect a science fiction classic, because this film isn’t it. Don’t wait for the “parallel world” premise to make any sense, because it never will. Don’t see this movie for Earth 2, see it for Rhoda and John.
The two lead characters are wonderfully developed by the script and beautifully played by the actors. Add in a very beautiful score on top of some solid visuals, and you’ve got a movie that’s better than any independent movie of this miniature scale I’ve seen all year. If that sounds like your cup of tea, go check this one out at your earliest convenience.