Nominally speaking, Another Earth is science fiction, but it’s more concerned with mood and metaphysics than science. When a second Earth appears in the sky, apparently populated by exact duplicates of the people on our planet, no one is concerned with silly practical issues of gravitational forces, orbits, or tides; instead, American society erupts into pained soul-searching, wondering what the event means to humanity, and what it would be like for a person to meet their exact duplicate. The question hangs over the film, making for an introspective journey; this isn’t When Worlds Collide so much as The Double Life Of Véronique in a modern American setting, with a touch of Hal Hartley melancholy, whimsy, and an atmospheric indie soundtrack.
The question of meaning is particularly applicable to protagonist Brit Marling, a smart young woman on track to be an astrophysicist until a car accident leaves her wandering through life in a perpetual cloud of shock and self-abasing guilt. Obsessed with the driver of the other car (William Mapother, still probably best known as Ethan from Lost), she attempts to confront him, but loses her nerve and winds up hiding her identity and working for him on a pretext. Meanwhile, the so-called Earth Two hangs above them, silently suggesting at every moment that on some other world, things might have gone a different way. As things progress with Mapother, Marling considers visiting Earth Two, possibly as an escape from her shattered life, possibly to see what she might have become had she made different choices.
First-time feature writer-director Mike Cahill (who co-scripted with Marling) gives Another Earth a raw visual aesthetic in keeping with its low budget, but just as suitable to its raw feelings of loss, regret, and longing. It’s all indie to a fault, from the handheld HD camera to the achy Fall On Your Sword score, but Cahill makes the most of his budget limitations by suggesting things he doesn’t reveal. In fact, the movie is more suggestive than direct throughout: Most of the philosophical questions are raised not by the characters, whose traumas tend to choke the most relevant words out of them, but by overheard snatches of reportage and media commentary. The approach not only lets the leads steep in their restrained, deeply felt performances, it opens up the world into a wider setting where everyone seems to be experiencing the same unease, confusion, and loneliness. It’s an ambitious premise and a risky approach, but Cahill and his cast execute it beautifully. And while the idea of an Earth Two where people made better choices—or at least different mistakes—is tempting, Cahill finds an even more compelling one in the idea of an Earth One where we all unite in exploring the same complicated questions in the same artful ways.