Dir. Mike Cahill
You can see why, from a screenwriting point of view, the idea of merging two disparate film genres together would be inviting: The friction between the two elements -- the ways in which they work in harmony, and in direct opposition to one another -- could be magic. More often than not, however, instead of the two stories weaving together to create a stronger fiber, they fray apart and you end up with something weaker than cheap dental floss.
Mike Cahill's film, a combination of grief-studded drama and science fiction supposition, works better than most of these hybrids, largely behind the gutty effort of the film's star, Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Marling plays Rhoda, a smart and beautiful young woman who is celebrating her getting into M.I.T. on the very night a new Earth (dubbed "Earth 2") , becomes faintly visible in the night sky. Drunk and not paying attention to the road from peering up into the stars, Rhoda accidentally smashes head-on into a car waiting at an intersection, killing a pregnant mother and her young son, and sending the father, John (William Mapother), a Yale professor of music, into a long coma. Years later, after being released from jail, Rhoda takes a menial custodial job at a nearby high school and attempts to assuage her guilt by comforting the man -- now living alone and in misery -- whose life she ruined that fateful night. Lying to him about being part of a cleaning service, she spends days with him, getting his physical -- and emotional -- house in order.
The plot might scream melodrama, but Cahill and Marling are after something a good deal more elusive. The film is cut to the bone in places, barely calling attention to large sections of story (the entire four-year prison term Rhoda serves is represented by a single grainy video surveillance image of her staring into space from her prison cell), and reducing most of the side characters to something like apparitions; and all this to focus intently on Rhoda, and her unassailable guilt. When she enters a global essay contest to try and earn a spot on the first shuttlecraft to approach the second Earth, we pull for her not just because we would like to see her succeed at something, but also so she has some reason to live other than to carry the weight of a lost family on her soul.
Alas, as good as Marling is at representing the stoic, caring Rhoda, she vastly outshines her co-star, Mapother, who has the more thankless role of being the drama's stooge, spending the vast majority of his screen time not having any idea who this kind and beautiful young woman is who has come to rescue him from despair. The film also quite self-consciously shoots for the shaggy intimacy with the kind of in-and-out-of-focus handheld shots that "NYPD Blue" made famous a generation ago, but here, in this otherwise quiet drama, that decision feels stagey and unnecessarily distracting. Still, there's no questioning the sad longing in Rhoda's eyes when she peers into the doorway of the man whose life she's destroyed, or the way she stares up at the second, mirror-image Earth, hovering just out of her gentle grasp.