The idea of “Sci-Fi” evokes flashes of classics – Star Wars, Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey – and the countless mega-budget summer movies that come and go every year, most collecting dust at the local Netflix depot. But the indie scene, and the Sundance playground, breeds a whole other sect of genre filmmaking: low-budget, heady Sci-Fi.
The Sundance premiere Another Earth, from first time writer/director Mike Cahill, dares to drape its tragic romance storyline in a blanket of technical astronomy. In the beginning of the film, a new “Earth” has been knocked off its hidden orbit and emerged from behind the Sun. An MIT-grad astronomer Rhoda is fascinated by the new world – so much so, she suffers a terrible car accident after zoning out to the glowing blue planet. The accident kills the wife and child of an acclaimed composer and Rhoda’s journey picks up four years later, leaving jail and looking for closure.
But successful science fiction, especially of the independent nature, requires commitment. What made Sundance predecessor’s Primer and Moon click was their integration of human drama into the crux of the science fiction story without allowing the “plot” to burden the characters. Another Earth takes a passive route. Cahill found himself with a great premise (an alternate Earth with a population that may mirror our own? Awesome!) and a loose way to connect the dots to his romance drama. It’s like two films: one where humanity strives to understand the moral implications of this new world and one where a girl must confront the lives she’s damaged – it just so happens the latter plot features a giant Earth in the background. See, it’s Sci-Fi!
Think of the best Twilight Zone episodes. Each story relied on the personal journey of the main character intertwining into the colorful, off-kilter world. That blend is what makes great Sci-Fi and why Another Earth misses the mark.