Science fiction is as popular as ever at the movies, but only a certain kind of sci-fi movie tends to get made. If it involves angry aliens, massive spaceships, and interstellar battles with plenty of CGI, then Hollywood is eager to open its checkbook. However, the film equivalent of the work of writers like Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, or Philip K. Dick -- who used science-fiction concepts as a backdrop for stories that investigated how changes in technology and society would impact human emotions and behavior -- is something that has generally been left to independent filmmakers, if anyone approaches such themes onscreen at all. Director Mike Cahill's first dramatic feature, Another Earth, is only tangentially science fiction, but it strives to make something intelligent and philosophically compelling out of the notion of an alternate world, and it's written and acted with an intelligence and sincerity that's genuinely admirable.
In Another Earth, Brit Marling plays Rhoda Williams, a bright and pretty 18-year-old girl who is fascinated with astrophysics and has just been accepted into MIT. Rhoda is driving home from a high school graduation party when she hears a news report on the radio about the discovery of a planet that seems strikingly similar to Earth. The announcer says the planet is visible in the night sky, and Rhoda sticks her head out the window to get a look. This distracts her just long enough to swerve into an oncoming car; the driver survives the crash, but his wife and child are immediately killed. Rhoda serves five years in prison for vehicular manslaughter, and when she's released she feels too emotionally wiped out to return to the world of academics. Rhoda takes a job as a janitor at her old high school, and learns that the survivor of the crash, John Burroughs (William Mapother), is living nearby. Hoping to apologize, Rhoda pays a visit to John's house, but lacks the courage to tell him who she is once she meets him face to face. Instead, she says she's from a new cleaning service and is willing to give him a free trial. John grudgingly lets her in, and Rhoda sees firsthand what's become of John -- he numbs himself with alcohol and pain pills, barely leaves the house, has little communication with the outside world, and has given up on his career as a composer, musician, and educator. Wanting to help (and noticing the filthy condition of his home), Rhoda keeps coming back to John's house to clean up and keep him company, and in time they strike up a close friendship that works wonders for him. Meanwhile, research on the second Earth has produced fascinating results: it looks identical to our planet and supports human life, and efforts to communicate with its residents lead to the startling discovery that each earthling appears to have an identical counterpart on Earth II. A private space-travel service announces they'll be offering flights to the new planet and stages an essay contest in which the winner will travel to Earth II, all expenses paid. Rhoda enters the contest, and to her surprise she wins; however, the media scrutiny she receives troubles both her and her parents, and she realizes that she'll have to tell John the truth about who she is and what she has done -- a situation made all the more painful when they become lovers.
Another Earth isn't much interested in the nuts and bolts of life on another planet that's an apparent duplicate of our own, and the film's special effects amount to little more than a planet digitally matted into the sky. However, director Cahill and leading lady Marling, who co-wrote the screenplay together, are deeply fascinated with the philosophical possibilities of a second world that's visible in the sky at all times and seemingly matches our own home in every detail. The soundtrack crackles with television and radio commentators speculating on the implications of Earth II, and it provides a mirror of sorts to the larger story of two people struggling to come to terms with the lives fate has handed them. If there's more than a little goofball pop psychology in Another Earth, there's also plenty of exploration of the human heart and soul, and Cahill's sincerity overwhelms the movie's occasional moments of pretension, studiedly shaky camerawork, and two-dimensional supporting characters. Brit Marling gives a brave, emotionally powerful performance as the young woman desperate to make amends for a brief but tragic error in judgment, while William Mapother is nearly as impressive as the widower looking for a reason to give life another chance, even if the film makes his emotional recovery seem conveniently speedy. Another Earth is a movie filled with little flaws, but what's good works well enough to more than compensate for its shortcomings. This is a film that valiantly tries to speak to the heart and the head, and it hits the former target well enough that you're likely to forgive its slightly faulty aim at the latter.