The essential image of the film.

2011 will be known as that year where there were two movies about hidden planets suddenly appearing in our sky. The other, Melancholia, uses its titular planet as a metaphor for oppression, inevitability, and potentially a nihilistic statement about the human condition. Another Earth is also using its planet, which is actually a duplicate of our own, as a metaphor. This time, it’s a metaphor for self-knowledge and facing up to what we do and who we are. Like Melancholia, Another Earth is a stunningly beautiful and poignant movie that is easily one of the best of the year. So I guess 2011 is also where two movies about hidden planets suddenly appearing in our sky wind up on my Top 15 list.

I’m not going to be shy about spoilers here since the trailer for the film made at least one part of its ending (the part the story is most concerned with) a foregone conclusion. I can see how that might frustrate those viewers who’d rather be surprised by a movie like this than know where the plot is going before they even sit down. Sorry, guys, but I think that sort of thing doesn’t matter much for the type of film Another Earth is.

Another Earth is about Rhoda (Brit Marling), a young girl with big dreams who makes a terrible mistake, one that may prove to be unforgivable. After a night of celebration she crashes into another car killing the family of John Burroughs (William Mapother). Only John survives but he is comatose for pretty much all of the four years Rhoda serves in prison for what I presume to be a criminal negligence resulting in death indictment. When she gets out, Rhoda heads home and finds a work placement that will let her silently make the attempt to live with herself and pay a penance she doesn’t seem to feel is complete. She accidentally encounters John, who doesn’t know her, and winds up tracking him down to face him (and what she did). She chickens out though, and tells him she’s a cleaning lady. John is a mess and needs one so he accepts and they form a friendship that eventually becomes something more.

Another Earth is mostly about what’s going on with John and Rhoda. At least on the surface. Underneath this is the recurrent background involving Earth 2, the planet that has, four years after it first appeared, drifted close enough to us that an earnest attempt to send a crewed mission is underway. Though we never meet him, it’s an Australian millionaire who is funding the whole thing and he puts out an essay contest for a seat on the shuttle. Rhoda flirts with the idea of writing in and finally does so when she, and everyone else, learn that Earth 2 is essentially a duplicate with alternate versions of everyone and everything that can be found here.

Rhoda is intensely solitary and withdrawn, confining herself to forms of penance and living constantly in the shadow of her fatal mistake.

What happens next should be pretty clear. Up to this point, John does not know who Rhoda really is. When he does find out, a theory about the synchronicity of the two Earths comes out and changes everything for Rhoda, giving her a chance at redemption. The interesting thing about Rhoda, for us, is that by this point she has achieved that. Brit Marling is a newcomer but she infuses her performance with so much vulnerability and sincerity that, though she colossally ruined John’s life, you root for her to find a way to forgive herself.

Part of that is in the fact that Rhoda’s quest for redemption is incidental. She cares less about herself and more about doing anything she can to ease John’s pain, to find a way to balance the scales. That this is completely evident is why we’re on her side pretty much from the beginning and that is owed completely to Brit Marling. It helps that Marling co-wrote the film, so Rhoda is a character she knows intimately and plays effortlessly. She’s an actress playing a character that I dare anyone not to fall in love with just a little bit in the course of this film.

Also excellent is William Mapother. He’s getting older and he’s never really been a high-profile actor. Lost was a show he was definitely an asset on but I never knew he had this in him. Mapother goes some dark places but always remains completely sympathetic and heartbreaking. The two scenes that are about music are highlights in the film, telling you everything you need to know about these two characters and giving John back a vitality he lacks in the beginning scenes when he is still a wreck. Aside from these two scenes, the effect Rhoda has on him is subtle but develops throughout the film. He becomes less and less of a basket case as he takes more interest in this new person, maybe the only person, in his life.

Brit Marling is pretty damn amazing.

I want to say more about those music scenes as they were my favorite scenes in the film. In one, Rhoda tells John about the first Russian cosmonaut and how he turned an unidentifiable tapping sound into music. This calls back to something fellow-janitor Purdeep says to Rhoda about adjusting oneself. Facing things we find difficult to face, sins and oppressive conditions and challenges and obstacles, is one of the major themes of the film. The cosmonaut scene sets this up a bit and is the first time we see who Rhoda really is under all that guilt. John sees it too and while it doesn’t go well for them temporarily, it leads naturally into the second scene where John uses a cello bow and a saw to play her this bizarre, haunting, and resonant music. That scene is worth the movie alone and just as you watch John adjust to seeing Rhoda as she really is, you also watch Rhoda’s defense mechanisms completely collapse as she sees him play, adjusting herself to something beyond penance and guilt, the things that define her life and this relationship.

Most of this is very subtle in the film. Some people will come away thinking it’s all about the long takes of Rhoda walking around being morose. About the existential angst of not only living with what you’ve done, but knowing there’s a separable entity out there that is you, that has done what you’ve done, that you might have to face. Purdeep, a barely seen but completely pivotal character, shows us an extreme of what Rhoda is facing. Rather than living with the knowledge of his other, he destroys his sight and hearing and this is a symbolic gesture that he cannot face himself. The question than becomes, can Rhoda do what Purdeep could not?

What these two share is as heartbreaking as it is unlikely.

The film, to its credit, leaves that largely unanswered. What she does when she wins the ticket to Earth 2 is a good start and implies that she has the capacity, has earned it for herself maybe. The final shot poses the question in unequivocal terms and it’s only a great ending that, once seen, feels like every moment has been leading up to it. Another Earth has a great ending, the perfect use of thematic tracking and surface ambiguity to craft something that stays with you long after you see it.

With Another Earth, both Brit Marling and her collaborator Mike Cahill (who co-wrote, edited, and directed the film) are people to pay attention to. It’s an exciting time for young filmmakers who set out to do small-scale, deeply personal science fiction films with fine drama and significant emotional truth.