First-time director Mike Cahill's "Another Earth" suggests Andrei Tarkovsky's "Solaris" by way of Aaron Katz. That unlikely combination speaks to the movie's unconventional mix of heady conceits and intimate conversations. A visually inspired fantasy mainly revolving around the doomed romance of two lost souls, Cahill's debut, a naturalistic science fiction brain teaser about the discovery of an alternate world, suffers from flimsy production values and overwrought philosophical pontification. Still, the premise lingers, and its unpolished feel lays bare the raw emotional appeal as much as it does the minuscule budget. The result is an uneven drama with genuine intellectual heft that often outshines its flaws.
Twentysomething Rhoda (Brit Marling) narrates the opening scenes, discussing her interest in astrophysics being spurred by images of Jupiter photographed by the Voyager space probe, an origin story that shows her poetic connection to scientific inquiry. That's appropriate for a movie that throws science to the wind in favor of an allegorical narrative: On the brink of getting accepted to MIT, Rhoda overhears on the radio that a new planet has appeared in the sky, visible to the naked eye. Peering out the window of her car, she inadvertently crashes into a van and kills two-thirds of the family onboard: Mother and daughter perish, while the man of the house, a renowned composer named John (William Mapother), winds up in a coma.
Rhoda does four years in jail, wandering through society upon her release in a daze, disconnected from everything around her. Unable to reenter her academic career, she takes on a random janitorial job, which she leverages into an opportunity to infiltrate the recently awakened John's life. Equally haunted by his past, the former father and current widower leads a lonesome life in his countryside home, where Rhoda travels under the disguise of working for a cleaning service. Obscuring her responsibility for his trauma, she forms a bond with the man and gives him the company he sorely needs. Meanwhile, Rhoda dreams about the prospects of traveling to the new planet, which greatly resembles our own.
It turns out that the planet, dubbed "Earth 2," might be a duplicate of this one—or vica versa, if you want to get really into it. Playing around with a dreamy premise worthy of vintage Ray Bradbury, Cahill uses his transparently implausible scenario to make obvious his greater aim of exploring universal ideas about grief and reconciliation. In the underlying tension between Rhoda and John, bound to reach its apex at any moment, Cahill uncovers the makings of a tightly arranged two-act play.
Newcomer Brit Marling, credited as a co-writer on the project, has a softly affecting appeal, mainly conveying her character's inner sorrow with long, insinuative glances rather than a barrage of tears. Mapother, to date best known as the creepy villain Ethan on ABC's recently-wrapped "Lost," does similarly powerful work by saying little and showing much in his ever-present scowl, which only Marling's character can lift. Their shared scenes contain a strong undercurrent of intimacy offset by prolonged dramatic moments intended to seem weighty, but instead feel drawn out. When John plays his saw for Rhoda, or when she tells him an extensive anecdote about a traveling astronaut -- filled with conspicuous metaphors -- the movie loses some of its haunting atmosphere to unnecessarily muddled storytelling devices.
Still, it's a tremendously promising debut for Cahill. The utilization of a single continuing special effect, the appearance of Earth 2 hanging in the sky like a layered Christmas ornament, creates an awareness of the movie's textures that directs attention away from the plot and toward the emotional core.
As a low budget sci-fi production, "Another Earth" makes the last major achievement of that genre on a small scale, Duncan Jones's "Moon, look like a studio product by comparison. Shot on digital video and noticeably rough around the edges, Cahill has a vision that outweighs his resources. However, with a premise that defies the laws of physics and themes that are more metaphysical than cosmological, "Another Earth" is not exclusively intended for space junkies. Even the amateur, on-the-nose pontifications can turn legitimately compelling within the context of single scene, and the compelling final shot smartly introduces a new element that redefines everything preceding it. It turns out that the real point of "Another Earth" is to investigate the meaning of this one.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Recently purchased by Fox Searchlight, the movie is in good hands with a distributor that knows how to make sizable commercial hits out of eccentric American indies. But the cheap look and elusive genre components may deter audiences from taking a chance with it.
criticWIRE grade: B