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Sundance 2011: Science-fiction heads to the future

January 27, 2011 | 11:17 pm

Two years ago at the Sundance Film Festival, "Moon," a modestly budgeted science-fiction film from Duncan Jones, captured the attention of festival-goers before going on to become one of the most beloved sci-fi films in recent memory.

This year, "Moon" may be making way for "Another Earth."

Jones' movie starred Sam Rockwell as a solitary astronaut trying to get home after laboring for many years on the moon. Despite the intergalactic setting, the film was as much about topics such as loneliness and memory as it was about anything extraterrestrial.

"Another Earth" is a similar piece of Trojan-horse filmmaking. Ostensibly a story about the discovery of a new planet, it's a lot more concerned with the fundamentally human themes of guilt and destiny.

In Mike Cahill's feature debut, Rhoda, a precocious high school senior bound for M.I.T. (Brit Marling) accidentally kills a mother and her young child in a car accident when she takes her eyes off the road to spot a newly discovered planet.

When Rhoda gets out of jail four years later, her life all but ruined, the planet is much more of a presence -- it is, we learn, a shadow marble to our own called "Earth 2" that hovers in the dusk sky and may feature doppelgangers of every human being on our planet. To describe more of the plot is to give too much away, but suffice it to say that an unusual relationship between the young woman and the widower of the dead wife (William Mapother), as well as a potential trip to the shadow planet, are both in the cards (or the stars).

"Earth" has been garnering raves from critics and has attracted a number of distributors, including Fox Searchlight, which bought rights to the film earlier in the week. At a public screening Thursday night, the audience was enthralled, engaging Cahill on everything from technical aspects of the shoot to the movie's gentle mysteries.

When we caught up with Marling  (who also wrote and co-produced; more on the young hyphenate, who has two movies at the festival, shortly), she said it wasn't an accident that young filmmakers were using this genre to explore more human questions.

"Science fiction lets you be a pop philosopher, and the times we live in, we feel the need for pop philosophy," she said. "Things seem so strange, especially in the wake of the economic collapse. How do we make sense of everything?"

Or maybe, she wondered, it was simpler than that. "You have to find new faces that haven't been explored in storytelling before," she said. "And I think sci-fi is a good way to come at the same human dramas we keep recycling over and over again."

-- Steven Zeitchik in Park City, Utah

Photo: Brit Marling and William Mapother in "Another Earth." Credit: Sundance Film Festival

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I've been serious about sci-fi since the Seventies, and "Moon" bored the pants off me. I couldn't finish it. Sundance is the kiss of death for entertainment.

She has acne scars


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