Through a strange coincidence of viewing, I watched three movies in a two-week period, all depicting planets nearly colliding (or colliding) with our own. I'm not sure the significance of such disparate depictions of interplanetary threat as seen in Michael Bay's "Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon," Danish provocateur Lars von Trier's "Melancholia," and Amerindie Mike Cahill's "Another Earth" (opening in theaters today), but I thought it was worth exploring the trend, in brief.
Perhaps the most interesting comparison of these threatening celestial bodies is to look at their industrial contexts, and how they are effected by these contexts.
For instance, while Hollywood's portrayal of the Tranformers' home Cybertron reinforces the film's overall xenophobic vibe, showing the planet as a foreign Other, on the verge of dominating and enslaving earthlings, Hollywood formula dictates total victory on the part of the human race, and astronomic impossibility: When Cybertron ultimately gets pushed away from Earth, it trails behind in an enormous swirling black hole that miraculously doesn't effect our planet, except for a residual light breeze.
In Cahill's "Another Earth," the mirror planet initially appears as potentially threatening, but true to the cliches of the Sundance heralded American independent film, becomes a catalyst for character development, reconciliation and emotional resolution. I don't mean to disparage "Another Earth," because I think it has a lot going for it, and it's nice to see a movie about a giant planet nearing our own that doesn't feel like an alternative take on "Armageddon," but as metaphor, the other earth of "Another Earth" is a little facile and too benign and hopeful for my taste.
Working outside of the confines of the American film industry, Lars von Trier's "Melancholia," as you might expect, contains the most cynical view of our solar system. But while the film is closest, only superficially, to the asteroid disaster movie, in that apocalypse is imminent and the characters struggle to find a way to survive, it's also the most subversive of the three, as well as the most haunting and the most resonant.
I wouldn't be giving too much away to say that the movie ends in cataclysm for all of humanity, for Von Trier has broadcasted that fact, but in contrast to Richard Porton's review in Cinema Scope, I'd argue that the world doesn't end in a "pleasurable whimper," nor in "an over-hyped non-event," but the kind of transformative experience that recalls the ending of Von Trier's "Breaking the Waves."
In the midst of planetary catastrophe, there is, in fact, not unlike "Another Earth," a profoundly humanist statement. But it exists so subtlety, so briefly on the face of Kirsten Dunst, it's barely imperceptible. It is perhaps the truest response to our own self-destruction, a grasp of the hand, a brief comforting gaze, a futile expression in the face of overwhelming doom.