Almost Us: 'Another Earth' & 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes'

By Cooper, Rand Richards | Commonweal, September 9, 2011 | Go to article overview

Almost Us: 'Another Earth' & 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes'


Cooper, Rand Richards, Commonweal


Acosmic sci-fi parable shot on an earthbound budget of $150,000, Another Earth stars Brit Marling as Rhoda Williams, a high-school senior newly accepted by MIT. Driving home late from a celebratory bash with too much drink in her, she leans out the car window to look up at a planet whose discovery has made headlines that day -- and plows into a family stopped at an intersection, killing a woman and her young son. The husband, a composer named John Burroughs (William Mapother), survives the crash; and four years later, freshly released from prison, Rhoda undertakes to find him and apologize. Instead she befriends him--she was a minor at the time of the accident, and thus he never knew her identity -- and soon finds herself in the precarious position of becoming the lover of a man whose life she has destroyed.

The "sci" part of Another Earth involves the planet that Rhoda spotted on the night of the accident, which turns out to be an exact replica of Earth. Its doppelganger nature raises the fantastic possibility (following an eerie scene in which a government scientist establishes radio contact with the other planet, only to find herself talking to herself) that all beings alive on Earth at the moment of Earth II's sighting remain alive there still -- which in turn raises, for Rhoda and John, the possibility of redemption, a chance to expunge a dreadful, life-altering tragedy.

Like 2004's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Another Earth subordinates its futuristic elements to the familiar realities of loss, grief, regret, and the powerful human urge to rewrite the past. This is director Mike Cahill's first feature, and it is far from perfect. Cahill's script (co-written with Marling) is badly underwritten, and the attempt at a grief-struck solemnity instead produces borderline catatonia--offset by an ending so abrupt and cryptic that one audience wit called out, "When's part two, next week?" Despite its flaws, however, Another Earth maintains a clear bead on the calamities of the heart, and does so in part by deftly keeping the specter of Earth II in the background. Passing scenes detail the growing clamor as the public keens with curiosity and anxiety over the mystery. But we are spending time with possibly the only two people on earth -- well, on Earth I at any rate -- who aren't paying attention; and their obliviousness makes for a testimony to the annihilating power of sorrow. Animated by the protean beauty of Brit Marling, the film is shot in gloomy sepia tones, with wide-angle shots of shorelines and fields half-lost in winter fog, that make Connecticut look like Minnesota--a world of dreary sorrow, over which the specter of Earth II floats big, blue, and luminous.

What fiftysomething in America can forget the phenomenon that was The Planet of the Apes? The film burst onto the screen in the turbulent year 1968, not only heralding with doomful elan the coming apocalypse, but peering beyond it to a through-the-looking-glass vision of a world turned upside down -- and offering, in the prospect of humankind enslaved to simian masters, a satisfying all-purpose scourge for our many sins. The film's success sparked a seemingly endless series of sequels, in which humans and simians slugged it out in alternating rounds of supremacy and subjection. Planet and its successors drew from a bulging grab-bag of the era's traumas and obsessions: Vietnam, the Cold War and fear of a nuclear holocaust, the civil-rights movement, the emergent animal-rights movement, space exploration, scientific triumphal and its opposite ... and, oh yes, the little wrinkling noses of those ersatz monkeys, so cute, like Samantha in Bewitched. All in all, a spectacular story. And now here comes Hollywood to tell it all over again for a whole new generation.

Like the earlier films, Rise of the Planet of the Apes welds its vision of a dystopian future to a warning -- this time, about the perils of genetic engineering and the pharmaceutical industry. …

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