Dir. Mike Cahill
(2011, PG-13, 92 min)

Another Earth is composed of competing ideas, each potentially interesting on its own but not especially compatible together. One is a redemption story about a girl who drives drunk and accidentally kills a man’s wife and child. The other is a science-fiction yarn about a perfect mirror version of Earth found hovering in space. In this, the film bears more than a slight resemblance to Lars von Trier‘s Melancholia, which was also about an existential crisis caused by a new planet looming in the distance. That was a great film that evoked the universal dread of mortality. This film can’t help but suffer by comparison.

The problem with the sci-fi element in Another Earth is that it only ever feels like a device. Such a discovery – a planet, just like us, maybe identical to us in every way – should be astonishing. It should challenge philosophies, level politics, inspire fundamental questions about our lives. But in the context of this film it only functions as a reflection of its mopey young heroine, who wonders if life is any better up there, a “What if?” wish made manifest in the sky. A whole new world, with perhaps another six billion people on it just like us, but it’s only there to further one girl’s woe-is-me crisis of conscience.

This is one of those stories in which two characters meet and fall in love, but one is keeping a terrible secret that will ruin everything. In this case, Rhoda (Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the script with director Mike Cahill), released from prison four years after her drunk-driving conviction, visits John (William Mapother) to apologize for killing his family. But she loses her nerve and instead pretends to be a cleaning woman to help bring order to his life. We’re meant to identify with Rhoda in her attempt to atone for her deadly mistake, but I found myself more sympathetic to John, from whose vantage point Rhoda’s penance seems cruel and self-serving.

The screenplay aims for profound introspection, but it ends up feeling indulgent, busy gazing at its navel instead of up at the extraordinary, existence-altering event overhead. The cosmic event is not developed well enough to enhance the story, and at the same time the presence of another Earth makes it difficult to invest in John and Rhoda’s relationship, which doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in at least one of these crazy worlds. Without revealing any details, I’ll say it all leads to a closing shot of great interest, which suggests that what happens after it may be more compelling than what came before.