It’s been a decade since writer/director Duncan Jones (son of “Ziggy Stardust” himself, David Bowie) unveiled his independent, old-school-style science fiction film “Moon”, which had a limited theatrical release in the summer of 2009. I went to see “Moon” twice during its run, driving all over southern California to find theaters where it played, but it was worth it. What better way to support smaller, independent sci-fi films than to see them in theaters whenever possible?
“Moon” was, in 2009 (and today) a breath of fresh air from bloated, over-the-top superhero epics and faster-than-light space swashbuckling stories. It is more in the mode of 1970s science fiction films. To those who came of age in that era as I did, the influences of “Moon” (hehe…the moon’s influcence) are obvious; from the industrial production design, heavily influenced by the works of Syd Mead (“Blade Runner” “2010”) and Ron Cobb (“Star Wars” “ALIEN”), to the introspective mood and feel of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky (“Solaris” “Stalker”). “Moon” is an innovative, modern science fiction story told in a retro, 1970s-style.
The film begins with an infomercial for clean Helium-3 energy, supplied by a nearly automated mining operation on the far side of the moon, which extracts the helium-3 from lunar rocks and soil. We then cut to a lone bedraggled astronaut, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), whose solitary existence on the Sarang Lunar Base largely consists of routine housekeeping and occasional maintenance of automated harvesters outside of the base’s living area.
Sam shares the base with a semi-ambulatory AI system known as GERTY (Kevin Spacey), who communicates with Sam via a soothing voice interface and emojis which express the system’s ‘mood.’ Making Sam’s lonely existence even worse is a lack of direct communication with Earth, due to a faulty comm satellite (a low priority repair for the lunar mining company, or so Sam is told…).
Sam has been at the base for nearly three years, and the isolation is getting to him. Increasingly dispirited, he dreams of his wife Tess and daughter Eve, with whom he is only able to communicate via prerecorded messages echoed back to the base via a long-distance Jupiter relay.
Taking a rover outside to check on a stalled harvester, Sam’s rover crashes. He later ‘awakens’ in the base’s infirmary. How he got back to the base is left deliberately unanswered by GERTY, whom Sam begins to lose trust in after the AI dodges a few basic questions. With a growing need to learn the truth, Sam wants to go outside the base, but is forbidden to do so on company orders. GERTY reiterates that it is compelled to comply with their wishes until Sam fakes a need for an external repair, convincing GERTY to allow him outside the base. Driving his rover to the point where he had his ‘accident’, he finds a crashed rover and a dying version of himself inside. Returning to the base with his doppelgänger, he confronts GERTY who ambiguously offers that both men are Sam Bell, and he is obliged to help each of them as best he can.
The ‘newer’ woke Sam begins to realize that he and his rescued doppelgänger are clones who are used in three year ’shifts’ at the base until they die, and are replaced by another clone. The injured doppelgänger Sam, who has been alive longer than his angrier replacement, rejects the notion that he isn’t “the one and only” (a song played earlier in the film). The ‘older’ Sam’s resistance manifests itself in increasingly childish outbursts, as the newer Sam becomes increasingly impatient with his–er, himself.
Both Sams harbor resentment toward each other, leading to shoving matches and even fights (resulting in a destroyed tabletop miniature of their hometown that the older Sam was working on before his rescue). It’s after one such altercation that newer Sam realizes older Sam is in a state of decay, since he is near the end of his three year life-cycle.
Newer Sam later takes a rover far outside Sarang base’s parameters, where he learns GERTY’s story of a defunct comm satellite is a myth. Sarang base is surrounded by signal-jamming towers which prevent direct communication with Earth. Outside of their influence, Sam pulls out a portable comm device and tries calling his wife. He reaches his now teenaged daughter Eve (Kaya Scoldelario) who, through a poor connection, flatly tells him that her mother is dead. Sam breaks the call when he hears his own voice coming from another room and realizes that the real Sam is already back on Earth.
Working together, the two clones find a vast storage bay of unactivated clones directly below the infirmary. Newer Sam wants the truth about the clones’ indentured servitude to the company exposed, and offers to send the dying Sam to Earth in a pod to expose the truth. Dying Sam realizes he will never make it, and offers to go back into the crashed rover outside, while newer Sam makes the escape.
The mining company is sending a team to repair the stalled harvester outside, but newer Sam quickly realizes that they will both be executed for knowing the truth; after which, another Sam Bell clone will simply be activated to replace them. With GERTY’s aid (using the AI’s security code), the two enact their plan. The company ship arrives just as newer Sam’s pod blasts off from the base. Older Sam sees his escape and dies in the rover. GERTY’s memory of their plan is wiped from its memory banks, and the AI is turned off… to be automatically rebooted after the escape. Newer Sam is en route to Earth, where his presence will no doubt cause a bit of a s#!t-storm.
Man on the “Moon”.
Sam Rockwell’s strong performances as all versions of Sam are Oscar-worthy. It’s no coincidence that Jones wrote the role with Rockwell in mind, as he’s perfectly cast. Rockwell shows us different but equally valid variations of the same man. The ‘older’ Sam is a decaying, dying, withering husk. The question is also raised; if we could somehow meet an externalized version of ourselves, would we like what we see? Would we get along? “Moon” explores this idea at length.
Newer Sam knows what he is, and he resents the rescued ‘imposter’ with whom he’s forced to cohabit. Older dying Sam initially resists the notion of his entire three-year life being a ‘lie’, occasionally acting out in childish ways (drowning out his doppelgänger with loud music, for example), but the inescapability of their shared plight forces him to come around. It’s at that point he willingly surrenders to his ‘death’ in the rover, allowing the healthier Sam a chance to escape to Earth before the company ship arrives to kill them both. When both Sams are given a common cause (and foe), they learn how to coexist.
The escaped clone of Sam’s eventual fate is revealed in the later Duncan Jones’ movie, “Mute” (2018) on a TV screen, where he is being interviewed. Originally “Moon” was conceived as a trilogy, or at the very least a shared universe, but this connection wasn’t made explicit in Jones’ later films, including the time-travel movie “Source Code” (2011), starring Jake Gyllenhaal.
Kevin Spacey gives a suitably ambiguous, Douglas Rain-ish performance as GERTY. Sadly, it’s a performance that is difficult to watch in the post #MeToo age, where Spacey’s real-life sexual misconduct allegations might involuntarily color one’s perception of his performance. Within the film however, Spacey’s vocal performance as GERTY is an effective counterbalance to the introspection, doubt and self-loathing of Rockwell’s Sam Bell(s).
Other performances in the movie are more like puzzle pieces than characters, which is fitting in a film where other characters are more like teasing titillations of a life the character(s) never had. Sam’s late wife Tess is seen in time-lagged messages and dreams, where she is played by Irish actress Dominique McElligott. Sam’s daughter Eve is played at different ages by toddler Rosie Shaw and teenager Kaya Scoldelario. Scoldelario plays the only ‘live’ version of Eve we see, when he drives beyond the range of Sarang base’s jamming towers to get a signal through to her. She also appears briefly as a vision of Sam’s within Sarang base.
The idea of a lonely astronaut with automated companionship is something seen in classic science fiction movies such as Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) and more fittingly from the 1971 ecological science fiction space film “Silent Running”, directed by “2001” FX veteran/pioneer Douglas Trumbull (who would later direct the ill-fated “Brainstorm” in 1982).
GERTY is an obvious nod to the more sinister HAL9000 from “2001”, especially with the ambiguous voice of Kevin Spacey. At first, Spacey’s too-soothing tones and emojis seem as obvious as a twirled mustache. GERTY also has the freedom of mobility tracks throughout the base, as well as mechanical ‘hands’ that allow it direct access to its environment without need of human assistance. Sam’s often confrontational, borderline abusive behavior towards GERTY also seems to stack the deck in favor of its eventual betrayal of Sam.
So it comes as a genuine surprise when it is finally revealed that GERTY has no sinister ulterior motive; he is, in fact, genuinely concerned for Sam’s well-being (all of the Sam Bells at Sarang base), even at risk to himself. This unexpected bait-and-switch from Jones and screenwriter Nathan Parker reminded me of HAL9000’s later redemption in “2010” (1984), when the former megalomaniac computer is ‘cured’ by his creator Dr. Chandra (Bob Balaban).
The independent film’s reported production budget of roughly $5 million is all up on the screen (and then some); the combination of tabletop moonscapes, miniature rovers, harvesters and other old-school FX blend seamlessly with the modern CGI elements. Interiors of the Sarang base would look right at home in an early 1980s Peter Hyams movie, such as “Outland” (1981) or “2010” (1984). It could also fit easily (with a bit of added grime and grit) into the cinematic universe of Ridley Scott’s original “ALIEN” (1979).
Motion-control camerawork of the two Sam Bells in single shots is pretty much seamless; an obvious improvement on similar motion-control work seen in “Back to the Future Part 2” (1989) or even “The Nutty Professor” (1996), which used moving split screens and even focal changes to make us believe that multiple Michael J. Foxes and Eddie Murphys were eating dinner together at the same table.
“Moon” uses motion control with just a sprinkling of CGI to make it come together a bit smoother. The ping-pong table scene is a dizzying example, mainly because it calls no undue attention to itself, and is shot like any other scene in the film. It’d be easier to believe that actor Sam Rockwell just happens to have a twin brother who just happens to be an Oscar caliber actor as well…
Why choose to go to the “Moon”?
2009 was a heady year for science fiction cinema. It was a year that included Neil Blomkamp’s impressive “District 9,” JJ Abram’s ambitious “Star Trek” reboot, James Cameron’s top-heavy “Avatar” and a few other highly anticipated sci-fi movies. Despite the illustrious competition, Duncan Jones’ moodier, quieter “space oddity” became one of my favorites of 2009 (and of the past 20 years). If your tastes lean toward less action-heavy and more contemplative science fiction films such as “Silent Running”, “Outland” “2001” or “Solaris”, then Duncan Jones’ film is definitely a full “Moon” to gaze upon…