After the End of the World

illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino

I never bought the kind of happy ending so common in science fiction movies: the sun-drenched shot of the heroes standing at the edge of some vast body of water, their faces streaked with dirt, the wind blowing through their hair. Yes, the aliens have been vanquished, the asteroid has been blown off course, but after the otherworldly ordeal they have been through, how can anything ever be the same? How can these men and women ever look up into the sky without thinking that something is going to fall out of it? How can they stand with their two feet on the ground and not worry that it is going to fall away beneath them?

The climax of a sci-fi movie is almost always a traumatic event. The narrative emphasis is not on the trauma, of course, but on resilience, tenacity, survival. That is what we pay to see, what we want to believe about ourselves. Yet when the credits roll, I can’t help but think of how the characters on screen will deal with the fallout of what they have witnessed.

When I was growing up I spent most weekend nights in the basement of my parents’ house, watching movie after movie with my sister and my father. My father liked science fiction and disaster films: Armageddon, Deep Impact, Independence Day. He loved Stargate SG-1 and Battlestar Galactica. As I was already an anxious child, it was destabilizing to be fed such a steady diet of apocalypse. I became afraid of being outside at night, afraid to look up at the stars, convinced that any of those points of light might be an asteroid hurtling towards earth, aiming to destroy me.

But I kept watching these movies, even as they terrified me and left me feeling vulnerable and shaken. I did this because I loved my father and craved his attention, and those nights spent watching the Earth getting destroyed again and again were often the only moments we spent together as a family.

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The opening of Mike Cahill’s 2011 film Another Earth echoes other sci-fi disaster movies, opening as it does at the moment an unknown planet—previously hidden behind the sun—swings into view. At the point of discovery it is only a small blue point of light in the sky. Seventeen-year-old Rhoda Williams (played by Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the film) is driving home from a party when she hears the news of the planet’s discovery on the radio. She is drunk. Distracted by the news and looking up into the sky, she runs a red light and crashes into a car stopped at the intersection, putting the driver into a coma and killing his passengers—the driver’s wife and son.

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One of my professors in graduate school defined science fiction as “what happens when metaphor is made literal.” This definition reverberated with the half-formed, childish understanding of those movies I created as I grew up watching them with my father. It helped me better understand the genre, and also helped me understand why, as I had grown, I had started avoiding it. I could not watch sci-fi because I intuited that these stories were literalized metaphors for trauma. In science fiction, worlds really do explode; the ground really does open up beneath someone’s feet.

My father died when I was sixteen. When I look back at my diaries from this time, I am amazed at how much my writing about my father’s death slips into the language of science fiction. His death was a giant crater in the center of my life, a vacuum, a black hole that sucked all meaning and light into it. In some ways I was lucky; prior my father’s illness, I had never suffered any real tragedy. I did not know anyone else my age that had lost a parent. My most substantial exposure to death and destruction came from fiction, from the movies I had watched with my father in our basement. The vocabulary of these movies turned out to be the best vocabulary I had to describe what had happened to me.

After he passed away, my sister and I threw away my father’s VHS tapes, hundreds of them. I remember filling entire garbage bags with recordings of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I stopped watching science fiction movies. Not only were they a painful reminder of my father’s absence—I had also never truly enjoyed them. I watched them because I wanted to have something in common with my dad. When he was gone, I lost any desire to seek them out. How many times, really, can you watch the world end?

Another Earth, too, is about the end of the world, but on a smaller scale. The initial discovery of a strange light in the sky seems to set the stage for a typical sci-fi tale. But despite the eventual importance of this alien planet to the movie’s plot, the danger in this film is entirely human. The film’s first five minutes depict the disaster of the everyday rather than the colossal, world-ending ruin of so many sci-fi blockbusters—just one car crashing into another on an otherwise empty stretch of road. While science fiction films often feature actual or threatened whole-scale destruction (by an alien force, by a hunk of rock and ice), Another Earth offers up a subtler consideration of disaster and its reverberations. It starts at the moment of disaster and unfolds outwards, tracing the aftershocks of this one terrible mistake. The movie is quite literally human: there are no aliens here. The only war in this movie is between a woman and her bad choices.

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After the car crash the movie picks up four years later, the day Rhoda is released from jail. In this time the newly discovered planet has drifted closer and closer to Earth—it is now clearly visible in the daytime sky. The planet hovering in the background of each frame is a mirror image, a duplicate of our own Earth. When first contact with Earth 2 (as it comes to be called) is made, it is discovered that not only is the new planet physically identical to Earth, but that everyone who exists on one earth exists on the other, with the same histories, experiences, and identities.

Science fiction narratives usually deal in external cataclysms, but Another Earth shows us an intimate, internal apocalypse—a crisis of identity, of regret. The discovery of Earth 2 leads the people of Earth 1 to self-judgment, to an interrogation of themselves, of the ways they have failed and the ways they could have been better. In one of the many radio broadcasts that form the film’s soundtrack, a DJ makes the central question of the film clear: “Now you begin to wonder, has the other me made the same mistakes I’ve made, and is that me better than this me?” This question is focalized through Rhoda, who is haunted by her own mistakes and unsure of how to live with what she has done.

Another Earth is quiet in more ways than one. It contains little dialogue outside of the constant background hum of the radio, so muted as to be almost indecipherable. This heavy silence seems to emanate from Rhoda herself, who has retreated so far into herself that everything happening outside grows too faint to hear. Visually, the film is understated, but its use of special effects is all the more beautiful in its restraint. The image of the mirror earth is always present, and its specter-like pursuit of Rhoda is captivating in its ambiguity. Is it a hopeful symbol, a giant “what if” scattering its light into the sky, an opportunity for self-forgiveness? Or is the other earth a cold reminder, throwing her terrible mistake into sharp relief?

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Rhoda comes to see the potential for redemption in Earth 2 when she watches a televised interview with a scientist. The scientist theorizes that the lives on each Earth were identical, but diverged at the exact moment they became aware of one another’s existence. Rhoda begins to hope that her double on Earth 2 might not have killed a family. She enters an essay contest for a seat on a civilian space flight to Earth 2, hoping to discover the truth for herself.

In the meantime, she attempts to apologize to the survivor of the car crash. She goes to his house, but can’t bring herself to confess. Instead, she panics, and offers her services as a maid. Because she was a minor at the time of the accident, the man, John, is not aware of her identity. She begins to visit his house weekly. While he is initially gruff and dismissive, their relationship grows more intimate as time progresses. Still, she remains unable admit to her identity.

Despite Rhoda’s deception, she and John begin to help one another move past their individual traumas. But when Rhoda learns that she has won a seat on the flight to Earth 2 and tells John that she’s leaving, he becomes angry. She confesses that she is the one who killed his family. John is enraged and throws Rhoda out of his house. But later she returns and offers John her seat on the spaceship, sharing her theory that his family might still be alive on Earth 2. He accepts her offer. The last time Rhoda sees him he is on TV, giving his final interview before being launched into space and toward this possibility.

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We all engage in this thought experiment: How would I be different if I had not done this bad thing, if this bad thing had not been done to me? Who would I be if I had made a different choice, been in a different place at a different time? Think over it long enough and these possible selves reproduce endlessly like reflections in a hall of mirrors. I have always found this a fruitless, frustrating exercise, because the world refuses to rearrange itself. You are stuck, always, with yourself—forever moving forward, never able to go back.

I do not connect with Another Earth because I see myself as Rhoda. I have done nothing so unforgivable.  I love the film instead for the way it reimagines those movies I grew up watching with my father, in a way that I didn’t know I needed. I might not know what it is like to carry a large burden of guilt. But, like many, I know what it is like to struggle to move forward after one strange moment tears a giant hole in your life.

There isn’t always a happy ending; part of trauma’s definition is that it goes on and on. But there might exist the possibility of a happier ending, a reality in which you learn to live with yourself after the ground opens up and swallows you or a person you love. Sometimes we map the meaning that we need onto the stories we receive. In Another Earth I found grace: a quiet meditation on self-forgiveness, on remaking oneself after trauma.

In the end, Another Earth is not about the sudden appearance of a mirror earth, and that other earth is not the magically redemptive symbol it might first appear to be. The movie is aware of this; I believe it’s why Rhoda doesn’t take her seat on the flight to Earth 2. The final scene is entirely ambiguous. It is not clear whether John’s family has survived on Earth 2, whether the other Rhoda is guilty of the same mistakes.

Some reviewers have taken issue with this uncertain ending. But to me, it rings true. Because, when it comes down to it, there is no neat resolution for Rhoda—even if she were to discover that her other self had not made the same mistakes, she would still have to live with herself. All that she can really do is try to be better, to move forward, to learn how to heal.  I want that for Rhoda the same way I want it for myself.