Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Movie Review: Hope for a better screenplay on "Another Earth"

by Salman Hameed

I have to admit up front. I went to see Another Earth with reasonably high expectations. I had an idea that the sci-fi element is not the central component of the film. Nevertheless, I went in to see some exploration of the implications of a mirror earth. I enjoyed the film watching it. However, my impression of it has fallen considerably in the last few days. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I dislike the film. The problem is that the movie wants to be more than it really is. It wants to pretend that it is asking some deep philosophical questions. In fact, it is an average, indie, psychological drama - which would be totally fine, if it didn't pretend otherwise. But the movie was also a darling at Sundance Film Festival, and even won the Alfred P. Sloan prize for the best science-themed film. May be the jury did not get a chance to think about the film for a few days.

Here are a few comments without any spoilers (no more than what is already revealed in the trailer). I think this is decent small budget film and you should go out and see it. The movie starts with a young women celebrating her admission to the astrophysics program at MIT. The same day, we discover a mirror planet - not simply as a terrestrial body, but it also has the same people up there. You can set plausibility issues aside for a moment, as this is a premise that can lead to fascinating questions. On her way back from the celebrations, being drunk, the young women slams into into another car, killing a young child and his mother, and sending the dad into a prolonged coma.

The remainder of the film deals with her coping with her actions. This accident fundamentally altered the direction of her life (and the direction of the surviving father of the other family). Did she have a choice? On another world, could she have not driven drunk after the party? What kind of life and what kind of a persons would have resulted from different choices?

My problem with the movie is that the entire story could have been told without any mention of Earth 2 (the name used for the mirror Earth). The absence of the Earth 2 gimmick would not have made any difference whatsoever. The presence of it, however, raised intriguing possibilities that the filmmakers did not incorporate into the screenplay. And that is a shame.

Now it would also have been okay to leave Earth 2 as is - and simply leave it in the background. But the filmmakers do have a number of radio voices (of scientists, philosophers) talking about the philosophical conundrums of this mirror planet. Okay - so then incorporate some of these fascinating puzzles into the screenplay. Place one of the characters in a situation where they have to address some of these philosophical challenges. But no - the filmmakers do not go in this direction. Instead, it seems, that the exposition is there to make the movie sound more significant than it really is. Sorry - this is no Solaris or even Moon. There is a better movie to be made on this premise - but this is not it.

But then there are two other things that really bugged me. One is the heavy use of obvious metaphors. I mean, a Wii boxing game is one thing, but to keep on telling that "you've got to stand-up", "you've got to fight for yourself" etc, was just an overkill. And there were many more - including the presence of Earth 2 as well.

The second thing that really bothered me was bad history. The movie is written by smart people. Apart from using the premise of Earth 2, which is an artistic license for the premise, rest of the science discussions are okay in the film. But then it brings up the worst cliche's from history of science: That at the time of Columbus, most people believed that the Earth was flat (nope - not true. This is like saying that most people in the 21st century believed that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. Yes, some people believe this nonsense - but a vast majority does not. It was the same about the notion of flat Earth at the time of Columbus). Sailing cultures definitely could see the curvature of the Earth over the horizon, and we can trace the efforts to measure the circumference of the Earth to at least 1st century C.E. Oh - and then there is the obligatory misstatement about Galileo. This time he was close to being burnt at the stake! (he was imprisoned in his house for vehement suspicion of heresy. Not a good thing for sure - but far from a burning stake. Plus, this was a complex case based on whether he violated what he had promised to do or not). There are couple of other silly historical slips in the film. It is just a shame that when filmmakers are making an effort to get the science right, why not pay some attention to history of science as well, and not promote the entrenched misconceptions.

Phew! I got it out of my system. So let me get back to some positive things about the film.

Another Earth does have good acting and some of the dramatic tensions are quite effective. The movie would have been far better off without bringing up Earth 2. But the filmmakers definitely have a lot of potential and this effort was done with a shoestring budget. I think we are going to see more of Mike Cahill (who co-wrote the film and directed it) and the stunningly beautiful lead actress and co-writer, Brit Marling. Oh - and the artwork of Earth 2 from our evening skies is quite spectacular!

Here is the trailer for Another Earth (Caution: The trailer lays out pretty much most of the story - and it even makes it more interesting than the movie itself. If you are like me and want to see films with minimum of story information, then skip the trailer.).

By the way, there is a 1969 European film called Doppleganger or Journey to the Far Side of the Sun. I watched it in Pakistan some time in the early 80s. It has the same idea of the mirror earth, but then it explores that concept a bit more. I don't remember if this a good movie or not, but at the time I liked any sci-fi film on TV. I remember that its ending was quite fascinating (I'll let you discover it yourself). 


Michelle said...

I don't want to give away surprises from the plot... but, if you liked the saw scene... you can hear music from it on the composer's website

Salman Hameed said...

Thanks Michelle. That was indeed very cool!

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