New Earths, New Futures: A Symbolic Synchronicity in the Collective Imagination


The world-destroying planet from Lars von Trier's film Melancholia (right).The Earth-destroying planet from Lars von Trier's film Melancholia.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. . . . —Revelation 21:1

I've been struck by some unusual symbolism manifesting in the collective imagination recently, with two notable (but unconnected) films sharing eerily similar imagery: that of a new Earth-like planet, blue, cloud-streaked, and reflective—essentially a mirror-image of our own—appearing in the sky. There's something deeply resonant and iconic about the image that appears in both Lars von Trier's haunting, nihilistic Melancholia and in Mike Cahill's provocative first dramatic film, Another Earth. I was going to write about the cinematic synchronicity, and what it means viewed through several prisms (Jungian, Hermetic, alchemical, Gnostic, comparative mythology, shamanism, etc.), but I haven't been able to settle on a single overriding interpretation—does a new Earth represent our hopes for a new beginning or our darkest apocalyptic fears? In von Trier's film, the new Earth-like planet is a cosmic joker, snuffing out our world and all its life, history, and dreams in a bleak, meaningless collision of mindless matter. In Another Earth, however, the new planet is an exact mirror of our own, including all of us, only changing its identical chronology when its humans (our other selves) become aware of our world (and we, theirs). Cahill immerses us in quantum paradoxes, particularly the "many worlds" or multiverse theory in which each and every interaction alters the course of reality.

Publicity still from the film Another Earth Publicity still from Another Earth.

Neither of these films attempts to be "realistic," even as lightweight science fiction, but are instead heavily symbolic fantasies. Von Trier doesn't even try to explain the presence of the new planet, except perfunctorily, while Cahill uses real-life scientist and SETI proponent Richard E. Berendzen to wax philosophically while invoking the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics (a theory, by the way, embraced by Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, among many other mainstream physicists):

In the grand history of the cosmos, more than thirteen thousand million years old, our Earth is replicated elsewhere. But maybe there is another way of seeing this world. If any small variation arises—they look this way, you look that way—suddenly maybe everything changes and now you begin to wonder, what else is different? Well, one might say that you have an exact mirror image that is suddenly shattered and there's a new reality. And therein lies the opportunity and the mystery. What else? What new? What now?

But what intrigues me more is not the similarities or differences in the filmmakers's symbolism, but the appearance of such a big, iconic symbol in two unrelated films arriving at the same time. This collective synchronicity affected me in a way that defied my attempts to wrestle it into a rational compare-and-contrast exercise, and I couldn't deny that the image of a new Earth in our sky, when divorced of all intended meaning, was inherently archetypal. Like a woodcut diagram from an old Hermetic alchemy text, the Kabbalistic Sephirot, or a trump card from the Rider-Waite deck, it contains a wealth of possible interpretations, but it's also just an image that just hits us way beneath the conscious, chattering monkey brain in the atavistic darkness where the life-giving Mother, the Wise Old Man, and the Devouring Demon lurk.

So I put this blog post on hold. I can't explain why the image struck such a chord, but I couldn't stop thinking about it. It's been a few weeks since I watched Melancholia, and over a week since I watched Another Earth, but the vision of a mirror planet appearing in the sky kept creeping up on me and refusing to go away. Despite several avenues of promising research, it resisted easy interpretation.

Then yesterday, NASA held a press conference about a discovery made by the Kepler space telescope team of an Earth-like planet—Kepler-22b—in the "Goldilocks" habitable zone circling a star roughly 600 light years away. The temperature of its surface has been calculated to be a balmy 72 degrees Fahrenheit, though the composition of the planet is completely unknown. NASA released an admittedly creative artist's conception of what the planet could look like, and, well, I'll just let you see for yourself.

NASA artist's rendering of Earth-like planet Kepler-22b NASA artist's rendering of the potentially Earth-like planet Kepler-22b (note similarity to von Trier's planet Melancholia)

Coincidences happen, of course, but so do the type of meaningful, acausal coincidences Carl Jung and physicist Wolfgang Pauli termed examples of synchronicity. Maybe the coincidence of a new earth-like planet appearing in two disparate films is just that—purely coincidental (though I must admit I have a conceptual bias against anything being termed purely coincidental or random—but that's a post for another time). But now that the powerful image is mirrored in the real world, inspiring headlines proclaiming a "new Earth" (Telegraph, UK) "Earth's Twin" (MSNBC), and "Earth 2.0" (from, it must be noted,, it feels much bigger—like the extrusion of a potent, deeply buried image into the collective imagination in a time when it truly does seem like we face the potential of human extinction if we fail to rethink our roles as occupants and stewards of this beautiful, white, brown, green and blue—but maybe not so unique—home planet of ours.

In short, what this all seems to be saying is: We need to create Earth 2.0. Right now, because this is the point when the mirror shatters. We have to look at our reflection in the shards and decide if we have what it takes—the will, the intellect, and the compassion—to bring it to manifestation.