Thursday, July 28, 2011

Another Moon?

A little over two years ago I saw Duncan Jones' Moon for the first time. Since then, you could say I've been trying, in vain, to recreate that experience -- the experience of modestly budgeted sci-fi that has a brain, and an expansive understanding of the human condition.

Could Another Earth be another Moon?

That's what I set out to discover yesterday, when I caught the film on the back end of some errands I was running for my wife -- errands that earned me the right to cap off my evening with what turned out to be a double feature. (And in an unprecedented move that would ordinarily qualify as its own post, I actually paid for both movies -- I decided that having the opportunity to see Mike Mills' Beginners, only moments after Another Earth ended, was more important than being able to sneak in for free, which I couldn't do because the films were on different floors in the theater.)

And if I'm going to recreate the experience of Moon, I'm really going to do it right. Not only was it the same month on the calendar, but it was also the same theater, the Arclight in Hollywood, which I don't get to very often because it's not geographically convenient. Additionally, the Moon screening was even part of a separate-entrance double feature -- before watching Moon, I'd just gone to a critics screening of the documentary Soul Power, down the road in a separate theater. Yep, I was making sure these experiences mirrored each other the same way that the doppelganger Earth mirrors our Earth in Mike Cahill's debut film.


Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.

The plots of the two movies are not ultimately very similar. Moon deals with a lone astronaut on a moon base, overseeing a mining operation for a multinational company back on Earth. Another Earth deals with an astronomy lover on Earth, racked with guilt over her role in a terrible accident, who obsesses over the discovery of a new celestial body that seems to be an exact duplicate of her planet. But the films definitely share a mindset, as well as a couple thematic elements. For example, in both films, the isolated central character stares at the skies in yearning, and in both instances, it's Earth they're yearning to reach -- the actual Earth in Moon, and so-called "Earth 2" in Another Earth. There's something they're trying to discover about themselves on that other planet, close enough to touch, but distant enough to seem impossible. In both cases, particularly in Another Earth, the main science fiction hook is something of a red herring, a means for the character to examine something about him or herself, about the very nature of identity.

They also share the same high level of quality. Not exactly the same -- Moon is the superior effort. But not by a lot. Another Earth pulls off the nifty trick of blending a high-concept sci-fi hook -- the discovery of a second Earth that's close enough to appear massive in the sky -- with what most of the story really is: a study of the way people cope with loss. In order to do that part of the story well, you need good actors, and the two leads -- Brit Marling and William Mapother -- do not disappoint. Since I don't know Marling from a hole in the ground, I was not as surprised by her performance as I was by Mapother's. He doesn't nail every scene, but he nails enough of them to make you forget that he's just Tom Cruise's cousin, a sort-of funny-looking guy who hasn't ever really had a leading role. And as for Marling ... wow. Her character experiences plenty of emotional situations in this film, and she consistently underplays every one, to great effect. However, she's also luminescent -- a fact we tend to forget, because most of the time she's overwhelmed by self-loathing. One more feather in her cap: She co-wrote and produced the film.

Points also to Cahill for giving the film a snappy visual liveliness in almost every respect, from the interesting camera angles to the thought-provoking cutaways. He really establishes a mood here, a mood of introspection and low-level scientific inquiry, and his limited use of narration and voiceover by poets and scientists really enhances it. The score, a combination of electronic music and more traditional orchestral pieces, works to keep this going. Plus there's that chill that goes down your spine, that sense of awe, every time you see that second planet Earth hanging there in the sky.

Is Another Earth another Moon? Well, I ranked Moon as my favorite film of 2009. You'll have to stay tuned until January to see if Another Earth can mirror that feat as well.

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