Another Earth was the latest Sundance pickup I saw, so it’s going to come out. Maybe they can push it as mainstream sci-fi, or at least arthouse intellectual. It’s really mopey indie movie as sci-fi, which is an interesting thing but I’m not sure how accessible it is.

Staring at the newly discovered second Earth behind the sun, MIT hopeful Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling) causes a car crash that kills John Burroughs’s (William Mapother) family. Four years later, presumably after a manslaughter rap, Rhoda gets work as a janitor. She mopes around in despair, trying to kill herself but it doesn’t take.

Rhoda tries to confess to Burroughs but ends up giving him an out. She makes up a story about offering free cleaning services, but he actually accepts so she ends up cleaning for him. John eventually warms up and they start a relationship. Of course she can’t tell him she’s responsible for killing his family.

What this has to do with the second earth is that there is a contest for a free trip to the new planet. Will Rhoda win the trip so she can escape the tragic life she created? Will she be able to find something to live for on this earth?

The sci-fi elements are subtle in a cool way. There’s a billboard for United Space Ventures. You see the second Earth in the sky, as visible as the moon but bigger. It even takes on half-moon shadows depending on the time of year. You can see the coastline of Earth 2 through a telescope. SETI’s first contact with Earth 2 is broadcast on the news. That’s all the sci-fi production value you need to establish the world.

More importantly, the idea of a second earth raises interesting questions. If you could have a conversation with your Earth 2 self, what would you say? Do you think those people are calling themselves Earth 2? Who are we to say we’re Earth 1? A guy on the street wears sandwich boards that read: We’re just a projection of the imagination of Earth 2. There’s even a reference to blue avatars in there, and green men.

Since this exploration hinges on the characters, Another Earth really rides on the performances. Marling is outstanding. You can really feel a heart and intelligence in Rhoda so it’s not just “I’m so sad, I don’t deserve to live.” Mapother of course sells the rage of a mourning husband and father.

I figured there’d be no way to really pay off the sci-fi in an indie film. They’re obviously not going to go to the other planet. But they still managed to resolve the intellectual issues in a definitive way. Another Earth may be the kind of sci-fi movie die-hards revel in, because it is just about the ideas.