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'Another Earth' explores fate with a sci-fi twist

Another Earth (PG-13) (92 min.) — As the title promises, there is a second Earth looming over Mike Cahill's feature film debut, and it's a big blue metaphor in the sky. Scientists believe it's an alternative universe becoming visible, that Earth 2 is an exact duplicate of the planet we inhabit, the lives we live. One researcher, while making first contact, winds up talking to another herself. Strange stuff, indeed.

Cahill never shows us Earth 2, except from a distance that appears to be shrinking. This is science fiction with its heels deeply dug into terra firma. Earth 2 isn't a place; it's a state of mind where damaged lives might be repaired, offering mulligans for past mistakes. A young woman who destroyed her life and others' by driving drunk and causing a fatal accident wants to go there, just in case.

Rhoda (Brit Marling, a bracing newcomer) was studying astrophysics when Earth 2 was discovered, a goal ended by four years of imprisonment for DUI manslaughter. She slammed into a car carrying John (William Mapother) and his wife and son. John was the lone survivor, long comatose and now wallowing in grief. Rhoda lies her way into his life, afraid to confess her true identity but compelled to somehow make amends.

Her chance may come, with a corporation's essay contest offering a trip to Earth 2 to the winner. It's easy to guess Rhoda will win, but what transpires is an understated yet stunning twist, followed by a haunting final shot that will either intrigue or exasperate viewers. My first impression was: Where's the rest of the movie? Over the next few days I concluded that it's all there. There just isn't much there to begin with.

Yet, Another Earth is a tough movie to shake off. Cahill and Marling co-wrote a screenplay resisting movie tactics that usually accompany such material. Using a sci-fi premise to engage a grounded, almost pedestrian story of guilt and regret is a bold stroke. The notion of a sufferer and the person who caused that suffering coming together is fairly common but typically played with melodramatic outbursts. Another Earth is stealthily effective, with silences often counting more than words.

This Sundance Film Festival prize winner will likely be remembered as Marling's debut, radiating intelligence with a trace of Julia Roberts' beauty. Marling is quite a story: a Georgetown University valedictorian who turned down a job with Goldman Sachs to join Cahill in Cuba for a documentary that also won at Sundance. She doesn't impress me as someone who'll take the ingenue route to superstardom, and that's most impressive of all. B+ (Veterans 24 in Tampa; Woodlands Square 20 in Oldsmar)

Steve Persall, Times film critic

'Another Earth' explores fate with a sci-fi twist 08/17/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 17, 2011 12:06am]

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