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Another Earth

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When you hear that “Another Earth” deals with the discovery of a previously unknown planet orbiting not far from our own, you may then be surprised to hear that 1) the movie isn’t really sci-fi, and 2) the story is not a terribly original one.

This quiet and somber indie drama, the first feature by director Mike Cahill, uses the astonishing celestial discovery as the backdrop — literally, in fact; the new planet is often seen hovering in the sky as the film’s characters grapple with their problems, which are tangentially related to it. The new planet can be described the same way Homer Simpson described beer: the cause of, and solution to, everyone’s problems.

For it is while gazing up at it on the first night of its appearance that a promising young woman named Rhoda (Brit Marling, who wrote the screenplay with the director) is involved in an auto accident, essentially ruining her life and cutting off her plans to attend M.I.T. Instead, she takes a menial job as a custodian while privately seeking to clean up the mess she made. (Get use to that “cleaning up” metaphor, by the way.)

Rhoda also begins working as a housekeeper for John (William Mapother), a Yale music professor who has become a drunken, slovenly recluse since a tragedy some years earlier. John needs fixing; Rhoda needs to fix something; they become friends; and so forth.

But what about that other planet? It appears to be habitable like Earth — indeed, it appears to be just like Earth in a lot of ways, to the extent that people start calling it Earth Two when they talk about it, which is almost constantly. (The discovery of ANY habitable planet would be major news; finding one so close to home understandably becomes the dominant topic of conversation around the ol’ water cooler.) Soon it is determined that Earthlings can travel to it. Rhoda wonders if this is her chance — wait for it — to start her life over again.

Don’t concern yourself with questions about how a planet could be this close without being seen a long time ago, or why its alarming proximity doesn’t destroy us. If you’re looking for a sci-fi drama about a major astrological event, you’ll be disappointed. The movie isn’t interested in those questions. Earth Two serves as a symbol: an opportunity to wipe the slate clean, the hope of a life better than this one.

Of course, you might also be disappointed if you’re looking for a poignant and emotional character drama. The movie is interested in that; it just isn’t always very good at it, relying too much on overly familiar dramatic scenarios. Marling and Mapother’s performances aren’t bad, and both actors are intriguing: Marling came from out of nowhere to become a darling at Sundance with both “Another Earth” and “The Sound of My Voice,” while Mapother is a recognizable face who’s rarely (never?) had a leading role before. While I watched the film, I was engaged in the story and curious to see where it would go. Now that I’ve seen it, the thought of watching it again sounds tedious. Some movies hold up to repeat viewings; “Another Earth” barely survives one.

C+ (1 hr., 32 min.; PG-13, a little mild sexuality.)