Jan 2, 2020
Moon explores one of the possible reasons that mankind might colonize the Moon in the not-too-distant future. In the film, fusion power has become a reality, providing limitless cheap and clean energy to the entire world. And as explained in the faux promo for “Lunar Industries, Ltd.” that opens the film, the most readily available source of helium-3, the element needed to drive the fusion reaction, is the Moon.
Sam Rockwell (last seen on this site in Choke) plays Sam Bell, the astronaut assigned to live alone on the Moon and oversee the automated mining operation. Sam is nearing the end of a three-year contract, which means that for three years he’s been in total solitude, his only companion an artificially intelligent computer named Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey) that nimbly maneuvers its robot arms around the base, and has a tiny screen where it communicates via a myriad of emoticons.
Sam’s live satellite feed to Earth hasn’t worked for a while, meaning his only glimpses of his wife and baby back home are through prerecorded messages. Isolation is clearly taking its toll on Sam’s mind, because he begins seeing things: He glimpses strange footage of himself on a TV monitor. The messages from his wife seem to contain abrupt edits. And worst of all, he sees a girl who isn’t there.
One day while repairing mining equipment, his hallucinations distract him, leading to an accident. Cut to the infirmary, where Sam is waking up, good as new. His bosses back on Earth confine him to base, but Sam defies orders and heads out to the lunar surface, where he discovers a crashed rover. Inside is one lone occupant, near death, who looks and sounds exactly like him, and also believes himself to be Sam Bell.
Prior to seeing this movie, the vibe I was getting from the trailers was that the story would end with “he’s really dead” or “it’s all a hallucination”, but thankfully, neither of those are the case.
As it turns out, the Sam we saw waking up in the infirmary after the accident is not the same Sam we saw actually having the accident. Sam #2 is a clone, and what’s more, Sam #1 is also a clone. They’re both the latest in a long line of clones of the real Sam Bell, who manned the moon base 15 years ago but has since returned to Earth.
Instead of sending a new operator to the Moon every three years, Lunar Industries has decided the simplest way to cut costs is by… creating dozens of fully-grown clones, implanting them with the real Sam Bell’s memories, keeping them in stasis until needed, and coming up with elaborate excuses why the live uplink with Earth doesn’t work. It’s a rather ridiculous concept if you think about it for any length of time. It requires one to believe a corporation would be evil enough to create a human being and cruelly force him to live a short, lonely life with false memories of a family he’ll never meet, for the sole purpose of cheap labor.
The film would have been far more believable if instead of mining the Moon, the film took place on, say, one of Saturn’s moons, or a distant asteroid where getting back to Earth is much more difficult. This could have also explained the strange fluctuations in gravity: for some reason, scenes taking place out on the Moon’s surface reflect its actual lower gravity, whereas gravity is just like Earth inside the moon base itself. The filmmakers could have simply set the film on a more Earth-like world, but of course, then they wouldn’t have been able to use the (admittedly stunning) visuals of the Moon’s surface as a selling point.
The film is directed by Duncan Jones (son of some guy named David Jones), who was out to recreate the style and tone of cerebral sci-fi films of the pre-Star Wars era, and it shows: A lot of the set elements are hexagonally shaped (what was it with ‘70s sci-fi films and hexagons, anyway?); There are scenes where Sam tends to plants, probably an homage to Silent Running; There’s a constant countdown clock ticking down to when the Sams face their doom, an obvious borrow from Outland; And then there’s Gerty, the computer that invites a lot of comparisons to HAL.
HAL was a computer that had to lie and couldn’t deal with it, and so turned homicidal. Gerty, on the other hand, only covers up the truth until asked a point blank question, at which point the computer is more than happy to spell everything out. It seems that in the filmmakers’ attempts to differentiate Gerty from HAL, they gave us an AI whose “motives” are jarringly inconsistent.
Genre fans went a little overboard with their love for this movie, and it’s easy to see why; compared to most sci-fi films made these days, Moon seems like a masterpiece. But upon rewatching it, with the answers to all of the mysteries already known, it becomes apparent how much the movie loses its way in the middle. Once Sam #1 and Sam #2 meet, there’s a long stretch of time where the story doesn’t really go anywhere.
After an intriguing and bleak opening, the movie nearly turns into the rejected sitcom pilot My Two Sam Rockwells, with the clones having odd couple-type roommate conflicts. I swear, there’s actually a moment where they fight over one of them wanting to dance to Katrina and the Waves. You’d think having to share close quarters with an exact duplicate of yourself would be disturbing and sobering, but the two Sams seem mostly just annoyed with each other.
But despite that, director Jones has succeeded in creating a thoughtful sci-fi film where “thoughtful” isn’t merely code for “boring”. And for a reported budget of $5 million, he made a movie that looks like it cost a lot more. In particular, the coexistence of the two Rockwells involves an intense amount of creative editing and special effects trickery. There’s even a shot where they play ping pong against each other, and you see both of them, and the ball, all in the same shot. I suppose it’s possible to figure out exactly how they did it by looking really closely, but why ruin the fun? (There was a writers’ strike going on at the time, which apparently left lots of talented effects people sitting around with not much else to do.)
Moon is a good, not great film that plays like a lengthy, above-average episode of The Outer Limits. Which is not intended as a swipe at either Moon or The Outer Limits, but much like that TV show, the film is more about dropping in a mindfuck plot twist than crafting a story that stands up to much scrutiny.
Jones is currently set to direct the long-awaited World of Warcraft movie, due out in 2015, but on the way there he directed the (relatively) big-budget Source Code, a Jake Gyllenhaal thriller involving time travel. Or alternate realities. Or some damn thing. I’ll be reviewing that movie in the very near future, but suffice to say that just like Moon, it’s a film that moves and entertains, but squanders its potential for greatness with sloppy storytelling.