9 December 2011

When Worlds Collide! ANOTHER EARTH and MELANCHOLIA

Today sees the release of a thoughtful little sci-fi drama called Another Earth, a film that came out of this year's Sundance with a justifiable buzz about it. It was duly snapped up by Fox Searchlight, and its release gives me the opportunity to recap a film I missed out on when it was originally released, but one which has generated quite enough of a response even before my delayed review.

For Melancholia is also a drama that hangs on a sci-fi twist, with a certain amount of indie cred and festival buzz. However, it happens to have been directed by Lars von Trier, which may lead you to expect that the film isn't as interesting as the media furore that surrounded it. And you'd probably be half right. It's not front-loading my reviews, to say that I much preferred Another Earth, but it remains that both are dramas with an existential slant, which each happen to involve the appearance of a fucking great planet in the sky.

It's only polite to get onto Melancholia first, given the lateness of the review. It would be maddeningly literal to say that it's a film of two halves, because the structure itself is just as literal. The first half is set at the wedding of a depressed young woman called Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, and the second plays out at the stately home of her long-suffering sister, Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. The unifying thread between both parts is a planet called Melancholia, which is, depending apparently on how rational you are, either going to orbit the Earth or collide with it.

The film wastes no time on any kind of suspense, by opening with a dream-like rendering of the final scenes, upon which the two planets collide and all of humanity is obliterated. Or at least, all of the characters we have been following in the film are, anyway. For a film that meanders as much as this one does in its first half, it's got quite a narrow focus, in the end. Part one takes place at Justine's wedding, and features a roll call of terrific actors, such as John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, Stellan Sarsgaard and Udo Kier. All of their characters revolve around Justine, in a metaphor that becomes quite poignant in the less combustible setting of part two.

Kirsten Dunst's performance is revelatory, and her best work as an actress by a long chalk. Embodying the film's central thesis, that people suffering from depression are much more calm when faced with an apocalyptic crisis, because they already expect the worst to happen, Dunst's role is to be quite marvellously anti-social for much of part one. At the same time, she garners a peculiar kind of sympathy because you see that her family are trying to square her vicious cycle of depression, and that their sense of entitlement and grandeur might actually be more depressing.

Melancholia is pretty much about the inevitability of destruction within the premise that has been set up. It's not to say that von Trier himself has any paranoia about the world coming to an end, but he instead studies how this set of characters might react if faced with armageddon. All of that stuff, particularly Charlotte Gainsbourg's performance, is great, but let's face it- with its moneyed ensemble, and the imminent threat of the world ending, this might be the ultimate "first-world problems" movie.

On a relative scale, Another Earth is a little more upbeat, beginning with the discovery of an Earth-like planet that is visible in the sky. Astrophysics student Rhoda hears about this while driving under the influence, and while distracted, she crashes into a family of three. John is the only survivor, as his wife and son are killed in the collision. Flash forward four years, and Rhoda has just been released from jail. Disenfranchised by her time inside, she takes a job as a cleaner and applies to travel to "Earth Two" on the first space program. However, when she starts cleaning John's house, her chance at redemption might be closer to home than she believes.

Rounding out a year that has had no shortage of smart, modestly budgeted sci-fi movies, here's one that deserves to be mentioned amongst the best films of 2011. It also deserves better than the company of Gareth Edwards' movie, Monsters, by virtue of having a real script, sympathetic characters and better acting. Not to bash on Monsters too much, because it's still not a bad film, but it is a film that's more impressive as a production than as a story. Another Earth, by contrast, excels in putting the context of the story in the background of a character-driven indie drama about grief and guilt.

As much as this week's discovery of Kepler 22-b could even seem like viral marketing for this movie, the film really isn't about the other Earth, as much as it's about that vicarious feeling we've all had about the idea that there's a version of ourselves, somewhere out there, that didn't make that mistake that's been bugging us. It's about that suspicion that somewhere out there, there's a better version of ourselves, but with sci-fi trappings, that manifests itself as "Earth Two". It's a clever conceit, but rest assured that they actually pull it off, which means it's good, and not just clever.

Lead actress Brit Marling was a driving force in making the film, having also co-written the film with director Mike Cahill. Marling's closeness to the character of Rhoda makes for compelling viewing, to the point where you really couldn't imagine anybody else playing that character as well. Tom Cruise's cousin, William Mapother, is perhaps better known for playing the creepy Ethan Rom in Lost, but he elicits a great deal of sympathy as John, who has more or less become a hermit since his previous encounter with Rhoda. Although the actors have the right chemistry, the characters aren't really a solid match, with all of their history, and the relationship is absolutely at the forefront, eclipsing that whole business with the other planet, just as it should.

With striking visuals, a thoughtful premise and the most audaciously open ending since Inception, Another Earth makes the most of its thought-provoking premise without selling short either its characters or dramatic beats. Brit Marling deserves to be propelled into the upper echelons of indie stardom for her work here, and Mike Cahill's direction shows no outward signs of the mad amount of effort and exertion that must have gone into making a $200,000 movie look so fantastic. I hesitate to call it the last great movie of the year, because I'll be very happy indeed if the dying days of 2011 throws up another film as haunting and heartfelt as this superior sci-fi drama.

If we compare the two side by side and ask which is better, in Harry Hill fashion, then it would be Kirsten Dunst who would be left crying. But my preference of Another Earth speaks much more of my tastes as a film fan, rather than of any particular lack on the part of Melancholia. Both films take on galactic scale, traditionally the province of much bigger, dumber movies, and tell refreshingly thoughtful stories within those settings. It takes some doing to find restraint within the context of worlds colliding, but each film manages to do just that, even if one of them blasts Wagner over the (in)action at every opportunity.

Another Earth is now showing in selected cinemas nationwide. Melancholia comes to DVD and Blu-Ray on January 23rd 2012.
------------------------------------------------------------------ 
If you've seen either of these movies, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

1 comment:

Dot23 said...

having seen both movies, I agree with Mark that Another Earth[AE] has more going for it than Melancholia[M] (you don't include Kiefer Sutherland amongst the movie's luminaries!?!).

I found M to be overlong, symbolically heavy-handed & emotionless (in fact, I wish in some ways LvT had just released the opening sequence and left it at that!) whereas AE was neater, tenser and more thought-provoking (although I too found *that scene* highly unlikely and forced).

It seems weird that 2 films with a similar premise, which both feature tormented, depressed beautiful women and are both shot in cinema verite style should come out in the same year - although I thought the same thing about K9 and Turner and Hooch. Perhaps they, like the invasive planets, are dark mirrors of each other - one offering Hope, the other Despair.