In "Another Earth," a new planet is spied deep in the solar system. As it moves closer, it turns out to be identical to our own. Soon it grows large enough to dwarf our moon. It's discussed on CNN, but not with urgency and alarm. People gaze up and squint as if contemplating something not serious but curious, like a kooky new kind of advertising campaign. Talking heads ruminate on TV. Why aren't people panicking?
The reason becomes clear soon enough. The orb isn't a great discovery, but a device for melodrama — a frightful type, it turns out, packed with every indie cliché of the past decade. The movie should be called "Another Car Crash" or "Another Meaningful Stare into the Middle Distance." The other Earth doesn't rip our oceans apart, it brings people together. Aw.
In the opening sequence, high-school senior Rhoda (Brit Marling) drives home a little tipsy after a party. Gazing up at the other Earth that was just discovered, she slams her SUV into an unsuspecting family. The scene is unintentionally comical, but writer and director Mike Cahill, who shares writing credits with Marling, is deadly serious. After the crash, the movie tells us that it's four years later — because it's important we don't presume it's three years or five years later. Rhoda is getting out of prison after doing the time for her crime. Cue long interlude in which director Cahill sends her out soul-searching on every winter beach, abandoned parking lot and frozen pond she can find within 20 miles. Rhoda takes long walks at night, long walks by the shore, long walks in the snow — the other Earth ever trailing over her shoulder.
Hmm, maybe she wants to be alone. "I want to be alone," she says. You get the feeling she's upset about something. To prove it beyond a doubt, Cahill puts a tinkling piano on the soundtrack.
To be fair, Cahill uses cellos and other clichés as well. It's kind of amusing to count them. There's the face in the rearview mirror, the dust motes floating in the sunbeam, the character vomiting as a result of emotional distress. There's even a wizened, old, ethnic guy (Kumar Pallana) spouting home-brewed philosophy. The camera whooshes left and right. It zooms in and out from medium shot to close-up.
Rhoda, now a janitor, becomes the cleaning lady for John (William Mapother), the former Yale professor whose wife and children she killed. John's rickety house is in poor condition, mirroring his emotional state. Under false pretenses (he doesn't know who she is) Rhoda gradually cleans it up and straightens it out. It's difficult to be absolutely sure, but this feels like, I don't know, symbolism. If Cahill and Marling are going for catharsis, they aren't embarrassed to go all the way and then some. If you bring young children, please, cover their eyes during the musical-saw scene.
Later, the movie remembers that there's this identical Earth in the sky. At this point you start to wonder if "Another Earth" could be an extremely dry comedy in disguise. It's especially difficult not to laugh when the female scientist on CNN tries to contact the other planet with what looks like a ham radio. "Come in other Earth. Can you hear me?" Is "Another Earth" a bad movie from 2011 or 1954?
But then the scientist actually contacts her twin up there. How she's establishing radio contact with just that particular person across that vast distance, and can be sure of it, who can say. Maybe both scientists were given security clearance for their nations' only radios. I'm no scientist, but I know that when news correspondents communicate across long distances on one Earth, there's at least a little delay.
And then there's United Space Ventures. Was this company formed in the four years since the other planet was discovered? It is now ready, spaceship and everything, to launch one citizen as ambassador — decided by an essay contest. Can you guess who wins?
Rhoda and John are such mopey sad sacks that the thought of their doubles is enough to make you yearn fervently for the other Earth to send out an identical rocket at the same time with an identical trajectory. Maybe they'll crash into each other. (PG-13) 90 min. S