Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Moon (Liberty Films U.K./Sony Pictures Classics, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

As things turned out, last night’s library movie was a truly great film: Moon, a 2009 theatrical release directed and written (at least the original story; Nathan Parker gets the screenplay credit) by Duncan Jones, who before he made this film was probably better known as the son of rock star David Bowie. (Bowie’s real name was David Jones, but he changed it at the outset of his career so as not to be confused with Davy Jones of the Monkees.) Moon is a grim but moving tale of a single individual working a three-year contract with Lunar Industries, Limited, a company that has solved the energy crisis by mining helium-3 gas from the far side of the moon and shipping it in capsules to the earth, where it’s apparently used in practical cold-fusion reactors to provide a major source of power that has displaced both fossil fuels and the world’s teeny-tiny stabs towards renewables. (The film begins with a marvelous parody of energy-company commercials introducing this product — narrated, apparently, by Sam Rockwell, who plays the leading and virtually only significant on-screen role.)

One interesting aspect about the movie is that while the film posits things that seem imaginably far away in time — like a sustained human presence and ongoing automated mining operations on the moon (as Charles noted on our way home, we can’t get to the moon anymore — we haven’t been since 1973 — and the development of the kind of spacecraft technology that would be necessary to extract raw materials from the moon and ship them back to earth simply isn’t taking place anywhere) — socially and culturally it’s very much of our time, or at least only a little ways away: the people act and dress pretty much like modern-day humans and Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is entertained in his lonely redoubt on the moon with reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Bewitched. When the film begins Sam is counting the days until his three-year contract with Lunar Industries expires — which is supposed to happen in two weeks, after which he’ll be sent back to earth to rejoin his wife Tess (Dominique McElligott) and their three-year-old daughter Eve (Rosie Shaw).

The credits list 10 actors playing identifiable roles but for most of the movie Sam Rockwell is the only visible actor and the only other voice on the soundtrack is Kevin Spacey’s. His role is as the voice of GERTY, the omnipresent computer that runs the station where Sam works and helps take care of him. GERTY is an obvious knock-off of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, not only in the even and rather supercilious tones of the actor voicing him (Spacey isn’t quite as even-toned as Douglas Rain was as the voice of HAL in Kubrick’s masterpiece, but he comes close) and his divided loyalties, but also in the single eyepiece with which he presents to the world (his is blue whereas HAL’s was red — he’s a blue-state computer — though he also has a yellow 1970’s-style “smiley-face” that changes expressions as his mood does) and even little details like his inability to keep the packaged food he heats up for Sam to eat from getting too hot. But whereas HAL was a fixed installation, GERTY is a mobile robot, able to move on overhead tracks from place to place in the station and follow Sam around as he works.

The movie is already quite powerful in depicting Sam’s almost unimaginable isolation (at least the real-life servicemembers in Antarctica have each other for company!) before a turn of events kicks off the main conflict of the plot: Sam leaves the station (against GERTY’s advice) to check on a failing mine station (there’s a Biblical reference in the names of the four automated mines, “Matthew,” “Mark,” “Luke” and “John”). While he’s on the surface, his lunar rover crashes — and the next thing he knows he comes to in the infirmary inside the station, clearly beaten up in the crash but with no idea of how he got there. Then he meets another crew member who looks exactly like him — and he begins to wonder whether the new Sam is a clone created for some sinister purpose. The two Sams get together to investigate their situation, and after a lot of antagonisms they ultimately stumble on the truth: they’re both clones, part of an endless supply of duplicates created by Lunar Industries so they never have to replace the crew member on their mining station or send anyone back to earth. When the person’s three-year tenure is supposedly up, they go not into a pod to send them back home but into an incineration chamber, where they’re obliterated and replaced by a new clone with the same memories and personality.

Moon is full of science-fiction clichés and borrowings from older sci-fi movies as well as printed stories (including a quick sequence of a dark-haired woman shown on the lunar station — apparently an hallucination of Sam’s — that appears to be an homage to the Russian Solaris), but the clichés are deployed sufficiently inventively you’re kept in a state of suspense and you really don’t know how the film is going to end until it does. Though one can pretty readily pick out some of the films that influenced this one — not only 2001 but also Invasion of the Body Snatchers (and its progeny, They Live and The Matrix), Solaris (evoked in the touching scene towards the end when Sam — the first one we saw — realizes that he or his previous clones have been on the base for 12 years, not just three, and in that time his wife Tess has died and his daughter Eve has grown to be 15 — played at that age in a short but touching performance by Kaya Scodelario) and at least hints of the Alien series (especially the most recent one in which Sigourney Weaver appeared as a clone of her character in the previous three) — seen in early 2010 Moon also emerges as a sort of anti-Avatar.

Both films are about unscrupulous corporations which have established settlements on faraway worlds in order to extract raw materials and make a profit, and both films center around alienated protagonists working for the big companies — but Moon doesn’t have any cutesy-poo indigenous life forms (since this is Earth’s moon we’re talking about, no non-human life forms at all unless you count GERTY as alive) to stage a rebellion against the corporate rule, and it only offers the tiniest glimmers of hope. Moon was produced on a far smaller budget than Avatar ($5 million as compared to a sum approaching the entire Gross Domestic Product of the Third World) and has a much less visually imposing appearance — though with the writers’ strike in the U.S. having choked off the supply of new scripts Duncan Jones and his crew had the run of Shepperton Studios’ facilities (probably a lot of the high-tech sets were left over from older sci-fi movies) and were able to hire much more prestigious technicians than would usually work on an independent film like this. They also used models extensively (and, perhaps in a nod to that, they gave Sam model-building as a hobby) and came up with an utterly convincing representation of a lonely outpost on the moon that creates the right sense of desperation and loneliness to make the story work.

Though one could pick the piece apart for plot holes (including one Charles wondered about, which was why Lunar Industries needed any humans at all — my guess was to be there to fix the mining machines if they broke down beyond their built-in capacities for self-repair), Moon is a genuinely powerful piece of work and, while not on the level of 2001 or the Russian Solaris (still to my mind the two best science-fiction films ever made), it’s one of the best in the much-abused genre and well worth seeing.