Other Bodies, Other EARTHS

For many fans of Netflix’s The OA (Season 2 coming in February), the miniseries could have been their first glimpse of Brit Marling, the show’s 35-year-old title star as well as its co-creator. She’s a singular talent; most of her efforts have been in independent projects, frequently as co-writer and actor.

Her first feature film, co-written with first-time director Mike Cahill, was 2011’s Another Earth. Three years later, Marling reunited with Cahill for his second film, I Origins. This time, the actor ceded the script and played a strong supporting character. Both movies should appeal to those who like intelligent, thought-provoking films with a seasoning of science-fiction.

In Another Earth, Marling portrays bright high-school senior Rhoda Williams who, on the night a new planet resembling Earth is discovered within our solar system, crashes her car while drunkenly stargazing. The horrendous accident kills the pregnant wife and small son of university music composer John Burroughs (William Mapother), who manages to survive.

Released from a four-year prison hitch, Rhoda tries to put her life back together, working as a custodian at the local high school, her college plans a thing of the past. Consumed with guilt, she goes to Burroughs’ home to apologize, but a series of misunderstandings cause her to insinuate herself in his life—as a cleaning lady.

Gradually she helps him begin to put his life together; he has no idea who she really is. Meanwhile, the alternate Earth is moving ever closer; scientists speculate the approaching planet is actually a mirror of this one, a sort of cosmic looking-glass on which our other selves could be living other lives. An exploratory team organized to establish first-contact aims to include worthy volunteers from the general public.

Hoping to find another self and another life, Rhoda applies. Her life on this Earth has grown complicated: The man whose family she killed is now her lover.

Another Earth has a minimal budget, but its cinematography, artistic vision, acting and script are first-rate. Visually, the use of simple but striking matte-designs to capture a sense of the heavens’ cosmic wonder recalls 1985’s New Zealand film, A Quiet Earth.

Like that film, this one features a mind-twisting conclusion; Another Earth is certainly a movie you want to think and talk about.

The same goes for Cahill’s second film. In fact, I Origins is that Hollywood rarity—a follow-up that’s even better than the original. Bolstered with a bigger budget, Cahill’s sophomore effort has more extensive, expansive locations and sharper, more impressive cinematography by Markus Förderer. The real substances, though, are Cahill’s provocative and intelligent script and the stellar performances.

Michael Pitt plays narrator, molecular biologist Dr. Ian Gray, whose voice-over, after several close-ups of the human eye, introduces the film. He tells us that even as a child, he’d been fascinated by eyes, and he notes that no two humans have the exact same pattern. Like fingerprints, our eyes individuate us. Finally closing in on one pair, he begins a story about how these particular eyes changed his life. “Remember them,” he says.

From there, the story jumps back eight years to an encounter with Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), a masked partygoer with unusual eyes. Their initial tryst leads to love and commitment though they’re radically different. Ian is a materialist and atheist; Sofi posits a spiritual reality of sorts beyond human perception and reason.

Meanwhile, Ian and lab partner Karen (Brit Marling) work to genetically originate or create eyes in a sightless species of worm. This God-playing unnerves the mystic-minded Sofi as she also senses a possible rival in Karen.

Midway through the film, a terrible accident hurtles the characters and the viewers into a metaphysical odyssey of sorts—it would be criminal to reveal it. You probably won’t expect what happens next or where I Origins is going, but the result is even more rewarding than that of Another Earth.

The three stars are terrific; the biggest surprise is Pitt whose best prior films include Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Bergès-Frisbey, a mermaid in the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean, is also a revelation. And Brit Marling stands alone.

It’s unclear what Mike Cahill has coming up; last year, it was rumored he’d be directing a film version of Dash Shaw’s acclaimed graphic novel Doctors. In the spirit of I Origins … it seems we’ll see about that.