Lost in Space, Stuck in Time: The Future and Another Earth

by |
07/20/2011 4:00 AM |

The Future

Directed by Miranda July

Opens July 29

Another Earth

Directed by Mike Cahill

Opens July 22

Personally, I blame creative writing workshops, for dangling imperfectly articulate expression in front of insecure peer-groups like a piglet over an alligator pit, but whatever the cause, we’re beset on all flanks by displaced longing—by decorative storytelling devices, concealed-carrying meaning. Quirk, at its worst, is a self-conscious dodge that demands attention for demographic recognition more than emotional resonance; at its best, it arranges old notes into new harmonies. In Miranda July’s short story “The Swim Team,”the narrator’s whole romantic life—absence, persistence, fear of terminal loneliness—plays out as she teachers retirees to swim on her kitchen floor, and it breaks your heart; in her first film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, a cross-section of anxieties were hugged to death by cloying gimmicks.

In July’s sophomore film The Future, Jason (Hamish Linklater) laments that age 35 is “loose change,”a remainder of spent possibility. He and girlfriend Sophie (July), who share a flat, mopey-jokey vocal register, plan to adopt a stray cat, whose expectation of commitment looms. (“Paw Paw”also narrates; the voice, mewling about “the darkness that is not appropriate to talk about,”is July’s.) In the month remaining, the two quit their unfulfilling jobs, with no clear plan beyond hope that Sophie wasn’t (only) joking about “gearing up to do something incredible.”Jason is vaguely political, canvassing for an environmental organization, and Sophie is vaguely creative, planning a dance project—but artistic block leads her to seek the solace of housewifery with middle-aged Marshall (David Warshofsky).

July mixes the dryly cute contemporary (she has a funny, specific sense of the mundane, like the YouTube dance videos that suck up Sophie’s time) with a weirdly doll-like sense of symbolic play: on the phone with Marshall, she tells him to listen for her yelling out her window. The real point of interactions is effaced, beyond even Sophie and Jason’s natural diffidence, by holes to China and t-shirts that crawl through L.A. like Slinkies. These narrative curlicues are cumulatively childish—sex seems like something that just happens to Sophie—and they waste ink: at the relationship’s breaking point, Jason, in a panic, stops time with his mind. It’s a beautiful all-in magic-realist gambit, but the movie is so diffused that the time just drifts.

Another Earth doesn’t coyly repackage its intentions, but rather packs sci-fi’s metaphoric charge into a more terrestrial kit of readymade genre conventions. Brit Marling stars and co-wrote with the director, Mike Cahill, her former roommate (also forthcoming from Fox Searchlight is Sound of My Voice, which Marling cowrote with her other ex-roomie, Zal Batmanlij, who directs). She plays Rhoda, an MIT-bound stargazer who front-ends a young family on the way home from a party, craning her neck towards the exact double of Earth newly discovered within our very solar system.

Shot in drab handheld, Another Earth settles into dutifully guilty character-driven indie mode, complete with awful withheld secret: Rhoda shows up at the home of the collision’s other survivor (William Mapother), and instead of apologizing, becomes his cleaner, penitentially fixing up disarray borne of his depression as the two dazed, damaged people bond tentatively in interactions mediated by the Wii boxing game they play, or the parables they tell each other as elliptical self-revelation.

But some of the displaced emotion has a classical metaphysical rightness: “Earth Two”hangs in the early-winter sky as Rhoda applies for a spot on an expedition. The world on space-crazed Earth One is sketched out with brief spills of color (a sandwich-board man: “Our memories are implant [sic] by Earth 2”), the bare minimum of atmosphere as NPR commentators and TV talking heads speculate about double lives and second chances. An ambiguous-reversal ending adds dimension late, but Another Earth could have used more of the unlikely but fully embodied feeling provided by day player Diane Ciesla, as the SETI scientist who establishes contact with her Earth Two doppleganger on live TV, her brimming, steady-now voice conveying a literally cosmic yearning for connection fulfilled.