It’s not surprising that humanity’s hope in himself to bring about ultimate meaning has fallen on hard times lately. Another Earth (2010) and Melancholia (2011) are just a couple of recent big screen portrayals of man’s planet-sized disappointment. It’s encouraging that his failures have caused him to look outside himself, but in these two dramas, man looks not to the Savior but through the telescope.
Director Mike Cahill writes with Brit Marling (also starring as Rhoda) the dark drama Another Earth – a tragic story of a high school grad, Rhoda, on her way to MIT, who drives drunk and kills the wife and child of John Burroughs (William Mapother). Burroughs, also in the crash, survives but is comatose. He awakes with no knowledge of the accident and, because Rhoda is a minor, he receives no information about his family’s killer.
After Rhoda’s 4-year prison sentence, she seeks him out to apologize. Riddled with guilt, she longs for penance and forgiveness but can’t bring herself to confess. After several attempts and in the safety of her anonymity, she moonlights as his maid, unconsciously hoping to work off her debt. Their mutual need for affection results in an awkward and precarious relationship.
The agonizing scenario plays out against the backdrop of a new scientific discovery – an ominously approaching planet, a mirror image second Earth. Scientists, having communicated with the inhabitants, find that they are also mirror images of us whose actions can and do deviate from ours. Rhoda hopes that the second Rhoda’s life may have turned out differently, perhaps having not gotten behind the wheel on that fateful night – thus meaning some sort of redemption for her. Second earth means a second chance.
Writer-director Lars von Trier also looks to the skies in Melancholia – a twisted take on clinical depression. Where Rhoda seeks redemption, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) concedes defeat. Von Trier’s ominously approaching planet offeres hope only in that it would oblige Justine by colliding with Earth and ending it all. The blue star named Melancholia pushes Justine and her apocalyptic premonitions over the edge. Scientists report that the star will pass by safely, but from derailing her own wedding to making sure her caretakers know there is nothing after death, Justine is intent on gloom and doom – the life of the party from beginning to end.
But at least Justine is consistent. For those without God, death is the most appropriate course, by sudden impact or otherwise. The godless Rhoda with her far-fetched hope may be the more tragic figure. She thinks she can wash herself clean; Justine just wants to wipe herself out.
Another Earth is a brilliant concept on a meager budget with mediocre acting, but it works well. Meloncholia is a visual masterpiece with too few words and too little detail – a feel-bad film that also works well. They work well in that the viewer will wake the next morning still feeling them – always a sure sign of success. Both, however, call for Christian critique (and due warning). People make poor saviors; planets fare no better. Help has come not in other worlds, but in the God-man Jesus Christ. He brings forgiveness. He offers hope.