Spoilers, including discussions of the final scene, follow.
ANOTHER EARTH is the deceptively intimate embodiment of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”; or, rather, it is a deceptively intimate deconstruction of said poem, depending on your personal perspective on the film’s final shot. Using the high-concept, science-fiction backdrop of a second, mirror Earth entering our planet’s orbit, co-writer / director Mike Cahill and co-writer / lead actress Brit Marling explore the philosophical meanderings of alternate routes through life. As much a film about penance and imprisonment as it is about reflections and identity, ANOTHER EARTH crafts an appropriately ambiguous arc of one woman as she tries to find herself again following a tragic accident.
Featuring more shots of characters staring into mirrors than might be particularly wise for a film so obviously about our own reflective nature (including a “broken mirror theory” that makes its way expositively into the final act of the film), the film still manages to paint an impressively sincere portrait of a protagonist who desperately wants to move past the skeletons of her past. Whether it be by making amends, running away or cleaning up after herself – which she does figuratively at first, followed by a more literal interpretation – she is a character completely in limbo, unsure of how exactly to continue the life that she’s made for herself.
But it is these shots of reflections that are actually the key to unraveling the real mystery of the film: the final shot. There has been much debate as to what this ending actually means – does it represent an Earth Two where Rhoda never gets into her car accident, goes to MIT and finally achieves her dream of going into space, becoming an astronaut and eventually visiting Earth One? Or does it represent a mirroring of the Earths all the way up until the moment where she gives her ticket to John, thus making her sacrifice a noble but ultimately fruitless gesture? Both seem equally plausible, and Marling and Cahill leave it up to the audience to interpret, but if you ask me, it’s the latter.
In spite of the tasteful direction that Cahill provides throughout the film, his many shots of reflections seem to be much too on-the-nose – that is, unless you consider the possibility that they are there to serve a purpose other than thematic decoration. Up until the very end of the film, Rhoda sees her reflection in every pane of glass that she encounters, a possible metaphorical reflection of this other person that she longs to meet, interact with and, specifically, to be. And as Rhoda boards the train home from John’s house after telling him the truth, there is a very particular, lingering shot of the window opposite Rhoda, where her reflection – faded, but still hard and clear – sits in perfect symmetry.
This is the last reflection that we see for the rest of the film; the last example of symmetry between one side of Rhoda and the next. This may very well be because it is the last time before she performs her first truly selfless act by giving away her ticket. I, however, prefer to read it is as the final moments of synchronicity between the Rhoda of Earth One and the Rhoda of Earth Two – the last moments that they were ever true, mirrored images of one another before their roads diverged. This gives those questionably blunt images earlier in the film a deeper meaning, and provides a sincerity and depth to our protagonist that would have been less impressive had the entire film been nothing more than a philosophical “what-if?” scenario.
Still, however you read it, the ending is extremely powerful: the moment a reflection becomes more than something abstract and becomes a tangible object. Regardless of how John will fair on Earth Two – will he be reunited with his family, or find nothing but bitter disappointment? – this is still the meeting of symmetrical objects, a chance to learn from one’s self. Does Rhoda One find that her counterpart is simply the summation of her youthful hopes and dreams, or does she find her to be a selfish, petty girl, as screwed up by her own mistakes as she is, but without the redeeming factor of that one last, selfless act? It seems a far more fascinating scenario to imagine them having gone through the same ordeal, only to find that our protagonist – in spite of her desperation to escape her past – is actually the one that came out stronger and a better person for havingnot run; that her counterpart is the screw up, the selfish side of herself that she abandons when she gives up her ticket.
But I guess we’ll never know for sure. After all, Earth Two is just an abstraction – we never get to go there.