Once upon a time movies had real endings stunners sometimes (think of Ridley Scott's "Thelma and Louise," which both writer and director had to battle for vigorously against an intransigent front office.)
Then came the current age of movies with pretested, prefabricated places where it was deemed the audience would prefer to stop watching.
See "Another Earth," a low-budget independent movie of such genuine and shocking independence that nothing is exactly familiar in it, least of all its stunner of an ending. If you're not rethinking the entire movie afterward -- or rehashing it in the car on the way home -- you may have been sadly and adversely transformed by the prevailing imaginative novocaine of our cinematic era.
This is science fiction in premise, but powerful, intimate drama in effect -- like Duncan Jones' "Moon" or Jones' father David Bowie's extraordinary film with Nicolas Roeg, "The Man Who Fell to Earth."
It was written by the team of Brit Marling and Mike Cahill, the star and director of the film respectively, and a couple off-camera as well.
It seems that another earth has suddenly arisen in the sky. They call it "Earth Two" and try fruitlessly to make contact.
A young woman is so hypnotized by its appearance through the moon roof of her car that she absent-mindedly plows into another car, killing two of its three occupants -- a mother and child. The only survivor is the husband/father, a classical composer who taught music at Yale.
She is charged with manslaughter, spends time in prison and, upon release, goes to his house offering her services as a cleaner. In his current life haze of alcohol, domestic chaos and despair, he assents, not realizing that he has employed the woman who wiped out his family and most of his life (she was a minor at the time, which is why she could enter a guilty plea without his ever seeing her).
Elsewhere, TV shows the first successful radio contact with "Earth Two" which proves that not only does earth have a twin up there but so do its inhabitants. We, too, seem to be replicated up there.
The young woman so haunted by guilt is still haunted by the very existence of Earth Two and wins an essay contest to accompany a space expedition to its surface.
For pity's sake -- and your own -- don't ask for logic from "Another Earth." Even on its own inventive and free terms, much of it spins off into the unfathomable. But it is utterly absorbing watching every narrative thread tied up.
And then comes that gorgeously symbolic ending, pregnant with metaphorical meaning and stopping you in your tracks, as if this quiet and gloriously strange little sci-fi fantasy had found its ending among the great 18th and 19th century tale-tellers, Dostoevsky, Kleist and E.T.A. Hoffman.
It's one heck of an answer to the movie's question: "What else, what now, WHAT NOW?"
The film was a big winner at Sundance and resulted in slightly astonished reviews for its lead actress Marling, who is not only a sensitive and disturbing presence on film but an even greater rarity as this film's co-writer.
William Mapother (Tom Cruise's cousin), as the composer/professor, gets the first truly good screen role he's ever had, it seems to me.
With Marling's life partner, co-writer and director Cahill, the two have come into the American movie sky to make one hell of an impression.
Not quite another earth, maybe, but a creative team wildly unexpected, considered either singly or together.
It's now literally true that people are saying to themselves about their future, "What else, what now, WHAT NOW?"
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Brit Marling and William Mapother
DIRECTOR: Mike Cahill
RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes
RATING: PG-13 for disturbing images, some sexuality, nudity and brief drug use.
THE LOWDOWN: Another earth suddenly shows up in the sky, leading to tragedy and the possibility of redemption for a couple of people in a college town.