The Cleaner and her Clone
In the past I have occasionally commented on the subtle way that improvements in computer technology have impacted on the film-making process. Specifically, it's not that difficult now to make high-quality CGI come out of commercially-available hardware, which means that high-concept SF visuals are no longer beyond the reach of the cash-strapped independent film maker (what a hyphen-heavy first paragraph this has turned out to be).
Such an indie project is Mike Cahill's Another Earth, although if anyone's name belongs above the title it's surely that of Brit Marling. Indeed, this is definitely A Brit Marling Film, as the young woman in question co-writes, produces and stars in the movie. Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with this, of course.
Marling plays Rhoda, a bright teenage girl with a glittering future – until she makes the mistake of driving under the influence one night, and smashes her car into that of composer and music professor John Burroughs (William Mapother), putting him briefly into a coma and killing his wife and child. Emerging from prison some years later, Rhoda struggles to find a reason to live, consumed with regret over her past actions. She finds herself drawn to Burroughs' house, intending to apologise, but her nerve fails her and she instead starts working as his cleaning lady. Completely unaware of who she really is, Burroughs accepts her into his life and the two find themselves becoming close...
That's all very well, Awix, you may be saying, but why is this movie called Another Earth? A good question, well asked. Congratulations. Well, in tandem with all this another plotline is going on about a new planet being discovered in the solar system. As it approaches Earth, scientists realise that the two worlds are identical, twins in every respect, and communications with this mirror world are soon in place. (Meanwhile, people with socks over their faces and lamps on their heads turn up at the South Pole and start causing no end of trouble... only kidding.)
You can look at this movie in a number of ways. In its combination of art-housey character drama and big-concept SF it bears a striking resemblence to Melancholia – there are a couple of scenes which are practically identical (though Marling is less forthcoming than Kirsten Dunst was in the basking-in-planetlight sequence), and both films gaily disregard the realities of celestial mechanics. But on the whole this is a much less accomplished film than von Trier's.
The SF element is, for one thing, cobblers, with no explanation given as to why there happens to be two planets floating around which are exact duplicates of each other. I know I mentioned this up the page, but the film flatly ignores the laws of physics when it comes to things like tidal forces and gravitational shear: another Earth floating close to ours would cause a global catastrophe, not provide the occasion for soul-searching that it does here.
This isn't even really proper SF, which at its best is about introducing a completely new element into a recognisable world and then exploring the ramifications of that in a vaguely systematic way. The twin planet idea here is just a way of articulating this film's central theme, albeit in a grindingly obvious way. It's very clear that this film is about the desire for second chances and the mysteries of roads not travelled: sticking another planet into the story and making the theme literal just makes the film seem simple-minded. Apparently this film won an award for Best Film with a Scientific Theme: steam probably came out of my ears when I first discovered this.
This movie would probably have worked better as a more down-to-earth drama – the other planet has very little impact on the plot proper until near the end – though it's still quite heavy-going in its early stages. Bashingly unsubtle dialogue and am-dram performances from the supporting cast are one thing, but there's also the fact that we're clearly intended to see the full depths of misery to which Rhoda has sunk. This takes the form of a lot of cleaning, in various venues: we see her scrubbing a set of school toilets, mopping the corridors of the same institution, wiping down Burrough's kitchen table, folding his laundry, and so on. A little of this goes a long way, and the audience is generously provided with these domestic goings-on, along with more surprising material concerning the two leads playing on a Wii at great length and Mapother serenading someone on a musical saw (one should not mock: the film implies this instrument has remarkable aphrodisiac powers).
At this point I was ready to dismiss Another Earth (well, kick it out the door, if we're honest) as another example of preposterous arthouse pretension, overpraised for simply being different. But, as the story goes on the relationship between Marling and Mapother becomes rather engrossing and affecting – both of them equally messed up by the same accident, and stumbling towards some kind of redemption or renewal through their contact with the other. Both the leads are rather good at this point and it's clear that some thought has gone into the movie: not necessarily good thought, but still.
Inevitably, of course, the plot resolves itself through some shenanigans involving the other Earth – I say resolves itself, but it doesn't, quite. Many more questions are raised than the film even begins to answer and the conclusion itself borders on the actively irritating. Still, there are just – just! – enough interesting things about this film to stop it from being a dud and a waste of time. As I say, it would probably have worked much better without the SF – but as it is, Another Earth is an interesting failure, nothing more.