Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Ghoul Versus Mike Cahill & Brit Marling's Another Earth

Dueling Movies: Another Earth Vs. Melancholia!”

I had never heard of Another Earth in my life... err, afterlife before starting out to watch it. The only reason it came to my attention is recently was having a 50% off sale on all their blu-rays so I stocked up LIKE A BOSS! Being that I'm constantly on the hunt for intriguing films that have slipped under the radar of most people, my attention was immediately drawn to this one as it looks like a unique take on the concept of alternate worlds. It also stars Brit Marling, who I only know from her guest appearance on an episode of my favourite TV show Community, where she played a woman named Page that Britta befriended only because she thought she was a lesbian. She had a really good presence in that episode, so I'm curious to see what she can do in a feature length movie.

Upon doing the briefest of online research before writing this introduction, I discovered it had a plot very similar to another film that came out a few months after it: Lars Von Trier's Melancholia in that both films involved a planet being discovered very close to our own Earth. I'd been planning to review Melancholia sometime early next year, but this discovery changed all my plans especially since I haven't done a Dueling Movies feature in quite some time. A Ghoul Versus..., a place where plans are as fickle as Sir Anthony Hopkins questionable role choices!

Marling co-wrote this movie with the director, Mike Cahill, whom I'm also not familiar with. This is his debut film as it sounds like his specialty is indie science fiction, so we should get along GREAT. Let's get ready to explore the concept of alternate worlds with A Ghoul Versus Another Earth!

We open with Marling's character Rhoda Williams narrating about her lifelong fascination with astronomy, triggered by an image she saw of Jupiter as a kid. We see her drunk driving home after a party, listening to the radio which announces scientists have just discovered a planet “super close” to Earth that can support life. She is so distracted looking up at the blue planet in the sky that she plows right into a family stopped in their car at a crosswalk.

Horrified, she weakly gets out of her car to check on them. The husband is still alive, but his pregnant wife and young son are dead. DAMN. We cut from this dark image to four years later, where Rhoda is now in prison for her horrible crime. Today is the day she's been released, which is cut with footage of experts discussing the alternate planet which looks extremely similar to Earth. She gets picked up by her family, returning home where she gets reacquainted with her bedroom. She searched the internet about Earth Two, finding about a contest a man is holding offering a trip to the planet in the form of writing an essay about why you're worthy to go.

The next day she heads to the career center to find a job, taking a maintenance position at a local high school. On her walk home she sees the man she hit pull over and leave one his son's toys at the spot where the accident happened. She goes home to research him, learning he's a Yale music professor named John Burroughs. John is played by William Mapother, who played the enigmatic Ethan Rom on Lost and Matt from the American remake of the Grudge.

She goes to his house to see him, but can't bring herself to knock on his door and talk to him. Instead, she goes out into the woods and... strips down while looking up at Earth Two. Huh, that's strange because Kirsten Dunst did almost the EXACT SAME THING in Melancholia. I mean EXACTLY, at night under the moonlight and all. While I seriously doubt Lars Von Trier even heard of this movie while he was making his (Another Earth came out a few months before Melancholia), it is HIGHLY bizarre both movies feature such an identical looking scene.

Rhoda's decision to get naked is rather stupid when compared to Dunst's, because in Rhoda's case it's the middle of FREAKING WINTER. One bout of hypothermia and frostbite later she decides to enter the essay contest, talking about how the early explorers of the west were originally outcasts and ex-convicts like herself. After a humiliating experience at a grocery store where she gets recognized by a former classmate of hers, she marches over to John's house to finally talk to him. We see John's life has sunk into complete disarray after the accident, as he is strung out drunk and there is garbage all over his house.

When he answers the door though she loses all of her nerve, pretending to be a maid from a cleaning service offering a free day trial of their services. The state John's house is in, I think he'd need a MONTH long trial. He accepts when he hears the magic word “free”, letting her into his house. She cleans through the power of montage, John impressed enough to hire her for next week. As she leaves she sees a woman pull up to his home and enter. When she returns she tries again to tell him, but he brushes her off because he's busy with something.
This goes on for weeks, one night Rhoda returning home to find her family watching TV. The government has finally made contact with Earth 2, which makes me question why it took FOUR YEARS for them to attempt this. I guess they wanted to wait until Rhoda got out of prison so she'd be able to watch it first hand. That was nice of them to prolong the biggest discovery IN ALL OF RECORDED HISTORY for her!

A Dr. Joan Tallis is handling the broadcast duties, getting a response FROM HERSELF. Ooh, “alternate versions of ourselves” story! I am SO fucking in! We cut to later where Rhoda has transformed John's house into a place that doesn't look like a refuge death camp, the professor setting up a telescope he saw Rhoda playing with earlier in the living room. The look at Earth Two, John seeming to have come out of his shell significantly since the discovery of their alternate selves. They begin to bond, which is just going to make Rhoda's reveal hurt SO MUCH more when she finally guts up.

John drives her home, realizing he never once thought to ask her name. She hesitates before replying, but he has no reaction to it. This continues the biggest non-science related plothole in the movie: how has John not recognized her the entire time?!  One day Rhoda tells John about her desire to go to Earth Two, which greatly upsets him and tells her it's a bad idea. Things get worse when he discovers she did laundry, which involves washing his family's clothes and now he no longer has the familiar scents in them. He kicks her out of the house in a rage.
The next day as she heads home from working at the high school, she sees John's truck parked outside her house. Frightened, she goes up to talk to him. He says he tried to call her at her maid job, but no one had every heard of her. She clumsily lies about poor management, which he seems to buy. He apologises for his actions the other day, taking her to an empty theater for an impromptu musical performance on his musical saw.

He brings her home and they have sex and FUCKING HELL you've made a mess of this, Rhoda. Afterward as they lie in bed, John tells her about his family and how they got killed by a drunk teenager. He says because she was a minor he never found out her name, and I absolutely LOVE this movie for covering all of its bases like that. I suppose people smarter than me would have known a minor's details wouldn't be released in a crime, but this was a very nice touch for idiots like myself. Taking the train home, Rhoda goes into the bathroom and throws up, as she is thoroughly disgusted at herself. She arrives home to some good news though, she won the essay contest.

Rhoda heads to John's house looking as resolute as she ever has, so you know it's about to get VERY painful in a few minutes. I don't think I can do a good enough conveying how PERFECT the movie has handled Rhoda and John's relationship, building it very organically and sincere to the point you have this dreadfully sick feeling stomach in your entire time knowing what's ultimately going to happen. John takes the news about her winning very well, putting on a happy face and cooking her a celebratory dinner. He's isn't able to keep this up though, as halfway through their meal he asks her not to go, to stay with him.

She begins to have flashbacks of that fateful night, scored to some very dark music that is kicking the heightening tension to the extreme. I never thought a scene with two actors talking over food would have me on the edge of my seat, but here we are. Rhoda finally confesses to everything, John screaming at her to get out as his world silently implodes. That was one of the hardest scenes I've had to watch in any movie ever that didn't involve rape, torture, or watching Megan Fox try to act, which is REALLY saying something.

Tearfully, Rhoda returns home to find out her home is covered in reporters as her winning the contest was just announced to the public. After watching an interview with an astrophysicist who discusses how radically different life on Earth Two could actually be, Rhoda races back to John's house. He yells at her to stay away so she sneaks into one of his windows, which proves to be a bad idea because he begins to strangle her. He stops though, going into the kitchen. Rhoda tells him about the interview she just saw and how his family could still be alive, setting her ticket for the space shuttle on the table and leaving.

The movie jumps ahead to right before the space launch, where Rhoda is watching John on TV discussing how nervous and excited he is to be heading to Earth Two. The movie skips ahead four more months, Rhoda coming home from work to find... Rhoda standing outside her house. Rhoda Two starts to step towards her as... things cut to black and the movie ends?! No! NOOOOOOO! Just five more minutes, please!

Cue the credits.

Speaking as dignified as possible, this movie kicked every kind of ass possible. Not only is this one of the best movies I've reviewed on the blog to date, this is also one of the best movies I've ever seen IN YEARS. I love how they took a very stock storyline of a character trying to atone for their past and made it completely riveting to the point you didn't even feel ripped off that almost no sci-fi elements came into play despite what you may have expected. Hell, it's almost a total opposite of the Signal in that aspect.

Virtually all of this is due to the powerhouse performance Marling put in, which really was more nonverbal than verbal as her character never spoke that much. She did more in her expressions and mannerisms than I've seen most actors do in the most verbose of roles. Even more impressive is that in addition to being an amazing actor she's also an amazing writer, having written or co-written most of the films she's starred in.

Aside from a few issues I had with some REALLY bad looking zooms, Cahill showed himself to be a natural at directing. There were many beautiful shots in the movie and he definitely got 100% out of every actor in the film. He did all of this on a miniscule budget of $20,000, filming it in his home town of New Haven, Connecticut where he got a lot of help and contributions from the locals to make a movie that in no way, shape, or form looked amateurish.

What do you think happened in the end? I think it's obvious Earth Two Rhoda never killed John's family, and thus when she won the contest she had no reason to give him her ticket. She also looked much healthier and dignified than Earth One Rhoda, who spent most of the movie wearing dirty hoodies and looking rather broken, which is very understandable. I would have loved to see what they had to talk about, but I don't feel cheated by this abrupt ending like I do in most films because it really was the best way to end this. I do wonder about John though, because in theory John Two will still be around to make for one hell of an awkward situation.

I've seen a lot of reviews where people are bitching about the science of this whole thing, how gravity would destroy our planet blah blah blah. Even I'M not that nitpicky, and I bitch about the stupidest stuff imaginable. Why even focus on that when it's not what the movie's centering on? I mean, when I figured out this wasn't a sci-fi movie despite being marketed as one, I didn't care in the slightest because I was too busy enjoying the highly engaging story.

Cahill and Marling reunited for another indie sci-movie that was released earlier this year, I Origins. This is another movie I'd never heard of until I was doing research for this wrap up, but after this movie it has now moved to the top of my list. Expect a review shortly, as it's set to hit blu-ray on December 9th of this year. In the meantime, you should go out of your way to track this movie down, it's among those rare gems that we don't get a lot of anymore: a high quality labour of love full of spectacular acting. Highest possible recommendation for this one.

Click here for the Melancholia review!