Sci-fi as the subtle knife:‘Another Earth’ & ‘Sound of My Voice’
There’s a phrase, a lazy refrain, which is often heard upon the lips of the culturally close-minded: “Science fiction is just… silly, isn’t it?”, or a variant thereof, offered in the implacable and unshakeable belief that because a story has a degree of impossibility in the world it describes it can only be a mindless entertainment, absent any deeper meaning or real-world relevance. This form of ‘argument’ is, obviously and unmistakably, specious rubbish pronounced by the thoughtless, at best, or the witless. Still, rather than alienate the whimsically-challenged and their ilk perhaps we ought to find some manner or method by which to draw them into the fruitful fold of speculative fictions, something that would not raise their parochial hackles until they were too engrossed to be able to complain with any degree of critical legitimacy.
By slightly strange coincidence I have (relatively) recently partaken of two films which make excellent fodder for such Machiavellian techniques, neither shying away from their sci-fi roots but each exploring ideas which cannot be side-lined as unimportant or unrepresentative of human fears and frailties rather than faffing around with special effects and many-limbed beasts from the darkest regions of distant galaxies. By slightly stranger coincidence both films are written, in each case alongside their respective directors, and produced by Brit Marling, who also stars in them. That wouldn’t be particularly relevant, beyond increasing my esteem for Marling’s work, but it does mean that any grudging enjoyment evoked from the unreconstructed anti-fan can be parlayed into a willingness, perhaps, to watch another sci-fi film with some familiar faces and some similar provenance…
Perhaps with a pragmatic eye on the budgetary restraints of independent sci-fi Another Earth and Sound of My Voice share a similarly terrestrial focus; the former dealing with the psychological after-effects and consequences of another planet appearing in the sky, identical to the known earth and peopled with an identical population, and the latter showing a couple’s investigation into a cult whose leader might have fairer claim to prophecy than most. Both films work whether one is a trenchant fantasist or a sceptical realist who seeks the most mundane interpretation as a matter of course, but the fact of this coupled with the rather exquisite cinematography of Another Earth and the insistent otherness of Brit Marling’s Maggie in Sound of My Voice make the subtle impressions of the films’ respective premises embed gradually.
In such low-key and expressive drama the performances have to be equal to the ambitions of the script: In Another Earth there is William Mapother’s John Burroughs, a figure bowed and broken by tragedy who has to be restored and destroyed in a hundred small ways before his story is complete, in Sound of My Voice Christopher Denham’s Peter Aitken, prospective investigative journalist whose faithless fervour wavers under the careful ministrations of a mysterious and charismatic leader and each of them, their many supporting cast members and, of course Brit Marling herself, whose character’s seem to pick over their every word with relish, are all instrumental in making the unreal naturalistic. Which is, I suppose the point: These are excellent films, not just excellent science-fiction, and the perfect bait by which to convert the wary literalist in your life.
PS: Go and have a look at the first review of Another Earth here. It’s not really relevant, it’s just grimly amusing how wilfully the reviewer misunderstood the film.