My recent viewing of Another Earth, a science fiction film I had been eagerly anticipating for some time, actually ended up causing me to question what even constitutes science fiction at all. Wondering why? Read on.
Another Earth tells the story of Rhoda, a young woman who kills almost an entirely family during a drive home after celebrating her acceptance into MIT at the age of 17. After four years in prison, she returns into society where a massive planet has appeared in the sky. This planet has all the hallmarks of our own Earth and is even discovered to have parallel and identical versions of ourselves living upon on. A company begins to plan a manned trip to this planet and offers a single seat upon the voyage to anyone via a written competition. Rhoda enters this competition whilst simultaneously seeking out the father she left alive during her car crash. Initially intending to explain herself and apologise, she instead becomes his maid and the two begin a strange relationship together.
So, why did this seemingly innocuous film cause me to begin unravelling what it means to be a science fiction film. Well, do you notice how few plot points in my synopsis actually revolve around the “other Earth”? Strange, considering that this is apparently important enough to make up the title. In fact, there is only one scene that I really felt seemed to scarcely examine what the other Earth meant for people on our own. The drama of the two main characters is no way dependent on what’s going on in the wider world and if there is any chaos relating to another freakin’ planet hanging in the sky it is sidestepped in order to focus even more on the microcosm that is their lives. It struck me during the course of this film that, not only is the other Earth not really looked at in terms of its global impact, it’s not even entirely necessary as a plot point. With a film that has overlying themes of redemption and escapism, a journey to another country would work just as effectively so how important is the “science fiction” genre with regards to this movie?
Back before science fiction was the accepted term for media that featured scientific elements, H G Wells used the term “speculative fiction” for his own (fairly famous) scientific novels. I’ve actually come to prefer this term for what we’ve come to accept as SF, mainly because I think that what really defines the genre is the ability to hypothesise about potential changes and the longstanding results of such changes. This is why I feel that Another Earth is an exceptionally poor example of speculative fiction, as all of the speculation within this film is restricted to such an extent that it almost doesn’t really change anything that we see. Drama is the main thrust of the story and whilst you can have these emotional moments in any story I feel like the emotional turmoil should at least be the result of this speculative change. In my opinion, the other Earth has a ridiculously small role on the story we’re given in Another Earth both for the characters and society as a whole. I’m happy to wave all scientific issues with another identical landmass such as the Earth appearing close enough for us to see it as this is part of the speculation, the “What if?” scenario. What I’m sad about is that Another Earth never really works with all these parallel people and what this would mean for relationships, families or entire countries. Instead it’s about a man and a girl who both make bad decisions that have little or nothing to do with this second Earth.
Not great speculation.