ANOTHER EARTH (2011, directed by Mike Cahill, 90 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Another Earth is an under-baked, overly-somber indie drama that attempts to enliven its paper-thin premise with an overlay of spiritual sci-fi. While both the drama and the fantastical elements are under-developed and poorly-executed, this independently-produced Sundance award winner has a deep well of earnestness that gives the film its own unique cock-eyed passion. Like the low-budget Christian-themed films that played the church circuit in the 70s and 80s, Another Earth‘s soggy storytelling may skirt believability yet it casts an odd spell because it believes so deeply in it’s own inspirational blather.
Newcomer Brit Marling is the soulful Rhoda, a high school student who plans to study astronomy but whose life is thrown off-course when she crashes her car into a family while driving drunk. She goes to jail for four years, and when she is released she seeks out John (William Mapother), the professor and composer who lost his wife and child in the accident. She becomes John’s housekeeper, unbeknownst to him that she’s the one responsible for his family’s demise. She is consumed with guilt, he is consumed with loss and as a romance between them blossoms, the weight of Rhoda’s secret looms.
Oh, I should mention that another planet has appeared in the sky! It’s earth’s double and when our government makes contact it appears that there are dopplegängers of all of us up there. And Rhoda has entered an essay contest (!?!) to be amongst the first to rocket up and explore the planet! Will she win the contest? Will John find out that she responsible for his family’s death? Will Rhoda appear in another scene, looking longingly at the giant planet hanging in the sky? The answer is inescapably, “Yes!”
Another Earth‘s script, by its star Marling and director Mike Cahill never puts enough flesh on its characters bones to bring them to life. Rhoda’s character is “guilt” and John’s is “loss” and the two are motivated by these singular emotions in every scene, claustrophobically defined by their situations. The actors both lack seasoning and their slow coming together reeks of acting class exercises. This threadbare drama would have never made it into theaters if it wasn’t for the sci-fi promise of that planet hanging in sky, and after every generic plot twist director Cahill will cutaway to the planet in order to give the situation some gravity. Metaphorically, I suppose the other planet represents the idea of second chances but the script does little to develop such an idea. The sci-fi element is barely developed until the film’s final moments, when it unveils a meaningless and predictable “gotcha” that neither raises our pulse nor gives us much to chew on for the ride home.
Yet it is the way that the performers throw themselves into their one-dimensional characters that reminded me of religious zealots, resolutely sticking to their improbable gospel and in love with their own conviction. This quality gives Another Earth an impressive, undeniable verve, although their faith in the material is ultimately misplaced. Another Earth exists to convince you of its profundity but before heading out to the stars, the filmmakers should have better mastered their craft here at home.
But if you still want to leave Earth, this Sunday Exhumed Films is presenting all five the film from the original Planet of the Apes series in a one day-long program at the I-House. Well, I hope I’m not spoiling anything by saying that the astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston) hasn’t left earth at all, he has instead traveled to a future earth ruled by intelligent apes (a completely different situation then then what is currently going on here in Washington). The original 1968 film set a template for the way blockbusters are franchised today, producing five films over five years, leading to a TV series, a cartoon and assorted action figures, ephemera and now two reboots. While the first film was a pretty extravagant affair, Twentieth Century Fox studios wasted no time skimping on its following chapters, as well as assigning B-list directors. Still, they each provide their own interest, gathering much of their charm from the game simian performance of Roddy McDowell as Cornelius (and later his son, Caesar.) Onward from the original, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) features a mutant cult that worship nuclear warheads, Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971) propels Cornelius and his wife Zira (A Streetcar Named Desire‘s Kim Hunter) into the swinging 1970s (nice pantsuit, Zira), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) is a subversive slave revolt drama set mainly in a high-rise (a plot most-closely connected to the forthcoming James Franco vehicle Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and Battle For the Planet of the Apes (1973) is a bit of an afterthought, a western where Pacifistic Caesar must pick up the gun to defend against mutants and the warrior gorilla Aldo (Claude Akins). Talk about escape? Sunday you’ll can lose yourself in a world without CGI as you try to untangle the film’s shifting metaphors on race, war, and justice, as they reach across time, space, and species.
Exhumed Films Wants You To ‘Go Ape!” “Planet of the Apes” Marathon is happening at The International House (3701 Chestnut St., Philly) Sunday July 31st at 11:00am