In the middle of Mike Cahill’s excellent science-fiction film, Another Earth (2011), a melodramatic story about the discovery of an inhabited identical twin Earth in the solar system, John Burroughs (William Mapother) angrily rebukes the desire of Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling) to join an exploratory space flight to the recently discovered planet. Burroughs builds his argument for staying put around Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” explaining that when the philosopher’s protagonist returns from exploring the three-dimensional world outside the cavern, the prisoners beat him for shattering their foundational conceptions of the world.
Given that we know Rhoda is hiding her true identity as the teenage girl who murdered Burroughs’ wife and son in a drunken driving accident, we sympathize with his case. From Burroughs’ point of view, it is better to live in the protection of the cave of ignorance than be forced into the light of day to confront the horrible truth, that his only friend and lover is in fact the source of all of his life’s pain. Alas, Rhoda does not listen: she is the film’s Platonic voyager. She devastates the man a second time when she reveals her true identity in an effort to atone for her sin.
After the distraught Burroughs kicks her out of his house, Rhoda struggles for something to do to atone yet again. After hearing a scientist on television describe his theory about the two worlds—that the moment they began to differ was when each planet discovered the others’ existence—Rhoda rushes to Burroughs. Having written an emotionally moving essay about her sorrow at murdering two people as an impetuous teenager, Rhoda has won a trip to Earth 2. As her ultimate sacrifice, Rhoda gives up the trip she has desperately sought to escape her guilt, instead hoping that the scientist is correct, that because the two worlds began to differ at the moment of the discovery, Burroughs may be able to reunite with the mirror selves of his wife and son living on Earth 2.
We last see Burroughs preparing to board the space flight in the Mojave Desert. We expect to next learn of his outcome, but instead, Cahill remains focused on Rhoda. In a parallel elliptical edit to the opening of the film, a four-year jump in time as Rhoda served her prison time for DWI manslaughter, a title card at the end of the film announces that it is now four months after Burroughs boarded the spaceship. As Rhoda returns home from her janitorial job at the New Haven, CT high school she once attended, the film’s last moment offers an over-the-shoulder view of Rhoda looking at a young woman with long blonde hair, nicely dressed. As the end credits roll, we are left to ponder what the arrival of Rhoda’s double from Earth 2 might mean.
Cahill has cagily distracted us with our concern for whether Burroughs will reunite with his family, that we have barely had the time or the cognitive schemata to ask the parallel question, What was Rhoda’s equivalent up to on the night that Earth 1 discovered its sister planet? Was Rhoda 2 also driving drunk, in which case it could be that Burroughs has arrived on Earth 2 only to discover his counterpart in the exact same pain he is. However, that does not seem to be the case: the fact that the mirror Rhoda does not seem to be forced into a working-class janitorial job indicates that she did not ruin her life, instead having attended MIT and continued with her life as she had planned upon graduation from high school on Earth 1.
And yet, this begs the question as to why Rhoda 2 has come to our Earth at all. If she did not kill the Burroughs family in a drunk driving accident, then there is little indication that she could have won the essay contest to allow her onto the spaceship leaving Earth 2 to come to explore Earth 1. Indeed, the most disturbing outcome, as well as the most likely, I think, is that she and Burroughs have switched roles, that on Earth 2, it was Burroughs having committed the transgression, having sacrificed his ticket so that Rhoda 2 could come to Earth 1 to reunite with her dead family members, family members indeed alive and well on our planet in Cahill’s movie.
Whatever the actual outcome implied, Mike Cahill’s film has delivered a stunning visualization of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” Typically, the interpretation of the allegory is that to know is better than to not know. In education theory, for instance, we seek to move students out of the cave of ignorance and into the light of higher learning. Only in Susan Griffin’s feminist manifesto, Woman and Nature (1978) does she make the astonishing suggestion that it might be better to be a woman inside the cave than one out in the glaringly abusive light of patriarchy.
The genius of Cahill’s film is that it refuses to endorse either stable interpretation of Plato’s text. On each planet, the denizens have lived for millennia not knowing anything other than their own entrapment on its surface. Upon discovering “another Earth,” each group sends out brave explorers to find out what life is like in what is deemed the fuller, three-dimensional universe, defined as such only because this new world is not theirs. Given Cahill’s metaphor of the mirrored worlds, this seems to suggest that either inside or outside the cave is to be found a complex mix of suffering and hope, as good a definition as any of what it means to truly be human.