Two beautiful tragic blonde women, hitherto unknown planets that suddenly and eerily veer into view of the Earth, alarmingly dysfunctional family dynamics. These are the uncanny similarities between Lars Von Trier's Melancholia, and Mike Cahill's Another Earth both of which were, oddly enough, released within months of each other in 2011.
Kirsten Dunst as Justine, in a heart-wrenching performance, is a luminous but slightly unstable bride who behaves more and more erratically during her wedding reception just after she sights a malevolent star that later becomes the planet Melancholia. Justine's behaviour devolves as Melancholia gets closer and closer to Earth, and the film chronicles her struggles with her family and with the inevitable existential crisis that arises as she contemplates the imminent end of our planet and every living creature on it.
Another Earth starring the newcomer Brit Marling, who also co-wrote the screenplay, starts initially with a slightly more mundane catastrophe. Marling's character, Rhoda Williams, has a sparkling future. She is beautiful, bright, and has just been accepted into MIT. Driving home at night after celebrating her acceptance, she is looking out of the window at the 'other' Earth that has just been glimpsed orbiting the sun when she slams head-on into a car with horrific results. She kills a toddler and his mother, leaving the father injured, but alive. Three years later, after serving time for manslaughter, she emerges, silent and solipsistic.
Neither film has much real science in it. The Other Earth, and Melancholia are devices, albeit visually gorgeous ones, used by Von Trier, and the Cahill-Marling duo to examine the behaviour of ordinary people trying to deal with their very human miseries when suddenly they are faced with cosmic events that alter the very fabric of what we believe is possible. This is the potential genius that lies behind the construct of science fiction. In the hands of master film-makers like Andrei Tarkovsky, films like "Solaris" using extraordinary "scientific" events to frame the human condition, are able to subtly pose deep philosophical questions about our understanding of fundamental things like family, humanity, love, death – all the big questions.
Science fiction at its pinnacle (think Avatar) succeeds by maximising the visual potential of cinema. Its sole responsibility is to open up our imaginations. I wonder if any one, anywhere, Kathmandu or elsewhere, after watching the planets rise into the night sky in these two brave new films wouldn't wonder at the existence of another earth, another planet, other life, and endless possibilities.
Both films are available in Thamel or at Suwal on dvd.