Another Earth: sci-fi mimics reality

Not only has NASA just found the Earth’s ‘twin’, this indie flick also reflects real-life attitudes to exploration of self and space.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater
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Last Monday, NASA announced the discovery of a world over 600 light years away, Kepler-22b. Since it was launched into space in 2009, the Kepler telescope has discovered over a thousand new planets far beyond our solar system. The reason Kepler-22b is so special is that it may well have similar environmental conditions to Earth, and therefore may be able to support life.

This planet is 2.4 times the size of our own, and orbits in what scientists refer to as the ‘habitable zone’, in which the surface temperature maintains an average level of +22C. This discovery represents a major step in our search for extraterrestrial life.

In a moment of uncanny synchronicity, which is sure to set the conspiracy chatrooms alight, Another Earth, a film about the discovery of our planet’s identical twin was released the Friday after the news of Kepler’s discovery broke. Co-written by director Mike Cahill and lead actress Brit Marling, this sci-fi indie flick is a rather wishy-washy story of guilt and redemption. On the whole, it offers very little beyond inert reflections on how momentary events can send our lives down a very different path. Yet, inadvertently, it says a great deal about what space exploration means in the modern world.

Rhoda (Marling) is a gifted 17-year-old who yearns to study and explore space. On the night she is celebrating her acceptance into Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), ‘Earth Two’, as scientists dub it, appears in the night sky. Driving home after one too many, Rhoda stares out of her car window trying to get a glimpse of the tiny blue dot, accidentally colliding with a parked four-by-four and killing the wife and son of composer John Burroughs (William Mapother).

Rhoda serves four years in prison and returns home consumed by guilt. She attempts to make her peace with Burroughs but, finding the once affluent composer living in filth and surrounded by empty bottles of scotch, she decides it is better to hide her identity and try and make his life slightly more comfortable by becoming his cleaner.

In the years since the accident, Earth Two has moved even closer to Earth One and scientists have discovered that, as well as being geographically identical, it is also populated by doppelgangers living ever-so slightly different lives. A competition is announced asking members of the public to submit essays explaining why they want to go to Earth Two. The grand prize is a seat on the first space flight to the new world. Seeing this as a chance to start again, Rhoda enters.

Despite its high aspirations, the film’s overall message is pretty basic. Indeed, Rhoda’s story does little more than pose the question: ‘How would you do things differently if you had the chance?’ Thus, like so many indie films that bite off more philosophy than they can chew, Another Earth is a rather vague and underdeveloped exploration of its subject, which leaves us to fill in the gaps and find some profundity for ourselves in its tangled mess of abstractions.

There is, nevertheless, something important to be taken away from it. Although it’s almost certainly not intentional, this film is emblematic of the way in which fatalism has tarnished the discovery of Earth Two’s real-world counterpart – Kepler-22b.

For instance, writing in the Guardian, news reporter Ben Quinn seemed almost dismissive of the discovery. He suggests that, while the new planet could sustain life, we should bear in mind its insurmountable distance from us, and that ‘earthlings secretly harbouring hopes that such a planet could potentially host new colonies from our own increasingly overpopulated home may be in for a disappointment’. Just as Rhoda sees Earth Two as an opportunity to start again and undo her mistakes, commentators like Quinn have also seen the search for life elsewhere as a mere means of escape from this supposedly noxious and overpopulated world that we call home.

The economic crisis has also had a substantial effect on the world’s space programmes. Under the Obama administration, plans for further manned flights to the moon and even Mars have been scrapped, in favour of a handful of unmanned probes. Questions about what NASA offers in a world stricken by debt and climate change now surround each governmental budget.

By evaluating space exploration purely in terms of economic concerns and highly contestable environmental ‘realities’, we ignore the technological and epistemological importance of it. Kepler-22b shouldn’t be seen as an Edenic projection of our own Earth before we choked the life out of it. Nor should it be seen as a pointless discovery with no bearing on our day-to-day lives. Instead, it attests to the height of human ingenuity and represents another small stepping stone on our path to greater understanding.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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