Solitary Confinement: Moon

Moon movie poster


Moon is a rare sci­ence fic­tion thriller that doesn’t derive its ten­sion sole­ly from the spec­ta­cle of space­ships, robots, or off­world locale. Rather, it’s a psy­chodra­ma about para­noia, in the Philip K. Dick tra­di­tion of Blade Run­ner, Minor­i­ty Report, and A Scan­ner Dark­ly (not to men­tion the count­less movies Dick indi­rect­ly inspired, such as Dark City, 12 Mon­keys, and The Matrix). Moon’s futur­is­tic trap­pings hide sev­er­al onion lay­ers of deep­er themes: bioethics, tor­ture, labor exploita­tion, and ques­tion­ing the nature of the self and one’s per­cep­tion of real­i­ty.

Direc­tor Dun­can Jones (aka Zowie Bowie, son of David Bowie), shot Moon on an extra­or­di­nar­i­ly eco­nom­i­cal bud­get of $5 mil­lion, achieved large­ly by restrict­ing pro­duc­tion to sound­stages and sub­sti­tut­ing prac­ti­cal minia­tures for cost­ly CGI. A ben­e­fi­cial side-effect is a pleas­ing tac­til­i­ty lack­ing in most con­tem­po­rary sci-fi films, where entire char­ac­ters and envi­ron­ments are now rou­tine­ly vir­tu­al. As a beat-up moon rover slow­ly trun­dles across the uneven lunar sur­face, kick­ing up dust, bump­ing and rat­tling all the way, it feels real because it is.

Duncan Jones' MoonOur circuit’s dead, there’s some­thing wrong

As his character’s name Sam Bell implies, Jones con­ceived the role with Sam Rock­well in mind. Rock­well was great in Con­fes­sions of a Dan­ger­ous Mind and Match­stick Men, and is great here. He must hold the screen vir­tu­al­ly alone for most of the film, and Jones was right to hype him for an Acad­e­my Award nom­i­na­tion.

Sam is a blue-col­lar min­er and the sole occu­pant of a par­tial­ly auto­mat­ed base ded­i­cat­ed to strip-min­ing the dark side of the moon for a com­pound need­ed back on earth for clean pow­er. It may sound like tech­nob­a­b­ble but in fact the sci­ence is sound: Heli­um-3 is a real ele­ment believed to be plen­ti­ful on the moon and the­o­ret­i­cal­ly may some­day pro­vide a sus­tain­able source of ener­gy. But in the true sci-fi dystopi­an tra­di­tion, Sam’s employ­er Lunar Indus­tries turns out to be as insid­i­ous as the Wey­lan-Utani cor­po­ra­tion that exploits the Nos­tro­mo min­ing plat­form crew in Rid­ley Scott’s Alien.

Lunar Indus­tries boasts of prof­itably sav­ing the Earth’s envi­ron­ment by pro­vid­ing clean pow­er on the cheap, made pos­si­ble by engag­ing in prac­tices that are arguably immoral but com­mon­ly accept­ed. The exploita­tion of cloned life is a direct par­al­lel to today’s out­sourc­ing of labor to devel­op­ing coun­tries with more lax human rights. If one won­ders how a future soci­ety might be so inured to cloning that they would con­done Sam’s servi­tude, media broad­casts over­heard at the end of the film spill the beans: no, they don’t (that is, if we’re opti­mistic and assume what he hear is real — it’s pos­si­ble they’re the fan­ta­sy of a dying man imag­in­ing his moral vic­to­ry). But per­haps it’s like how many in the west­ern world live now; we enjoy afford­able con­sumer elec­tron­ics and cloth­ing man­u­fac­tured by work­ers that lit­er­al­ly live inside their fac­to­ries, and don’t ask why our pur­chas­es don’t cost more. Jones told Sui­cide Girls that Moon is the first part in a pro­ject­ed tril­o­gy, so per­haps we will see pre­quels or sequels that flesh out a world where human cloning is a fact of life.

Kevin Spacey in Duncan Jones' MoonGERTY ROTFLMAO

Sam’s mad­ness and phys­i­cal dete­ri­o­ra­tion is par­tial­ly explained with­in the sci­ence fic­tion con­text as a result of the inher­ent insta­bil­i­ty of cloned life. Appar­ent­ly, like ear­ly exper­i­ments with ani­mals like Dol­ly the sheep in 1996, clones are more prone to dis­ease, organ fail­ure, and pre­ma­ture death (Dol­ly sur­vived about half the nor­mal lifes­pan for a sheep). Like the “repli­cants” in Blade Run­ner, these clones come with built-in expi­ra­tion dates. But then, don’t we all? While Blade Runner’s Dekker comes to terms with his true nature through escape, Sam instead choos­es to con­front.

Dis­cov­er­ing he is mere­ly a com­mer­cial prod­uct with inbuilt obso­les­cence is just one of Sam’s prob­lems. His quar­ters and work­space look like they might have once been as clean and white as 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Dis­cov­ery One ves­sel (or the inside of an Apple Store), but have long since become stained and soiled with the filth and grit of the many Sams that came before him. Also like the Dis­cov­ery One astro­nauts, Sam peri­od­i­cal­ly receives pre­re­cord­ed video mes­sages beamed from earth. These asyn­chro­nous con­ver­sa­tions are not unlike email, and a poor sub­sti­tute for real human inter­ac­tion.

You don’t have to look far for a metaphor: the com­mon prac­tice of soli­tary con­fine­ment is increas­ing­ly rec­og­nized as a form of tor­ture. The har­row­ing New York­er arti­cle “Hell­hole” by Atul Gawande recounts how a psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly sta­ble per­son can go mad in a mat­ter of weeks or even days with­out human con­tact. We first meet Sam three years into his tour of duty.

Sam Rockwell in Duncan Jones' MoonI am oblig­at­ed to make a lame “Sam I Am” joke some­where in this review, so here it is

Sam’s inter­ac­tions with the base’s com­put­er GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) are like­wise reduced to the rudi­ments of online com­mu­ni­ca­tion; its “face” is com­prised of happy/sad/neutral emoti­cons. GERTY is a rar­i­ty in sci­ence fic­tion: a com­pas­sion­ate exam­ple of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence. Count­less movies (includ­ing 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, Wargames, The Ter­mi­na­tor, I Robot, et al.) have trained us to expect arti­fi­cial intel­li­gences to be inher­ent­ly evil or, at least, dan­ger­ous­ly unsta­ble. But GERTY is more like David (Haley Joel Osment) in A.I.: Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence, Rob­by the Robot in For­bid­den Plan­et, or Wall-E: an arti­fi­cial cre­ation that rigid­ly fol­lows its pro­gram­ming, but whose para­me­ters allow it to exhib­it gen­uine com­pas­sion and car­ing for its charge.

I loved the movie over­all, but was dis­ap­point­ed by the lack of ambi­gu­i­ty in its sto­ry­telling. The trail­er reveals more than I would have liked to know if I had watched the movie cold, and the movie itself reveals its secrets very ear­ly by quick­ly drop­ping the word “clone.” Would it have been more inter­est­ing had there been hints of a pos­si­bil­i­ty that Sam might be delu­sion­al, hal­lu­ci­nat­ing a clone, and was in fact alone the whole time? Maybe I’ve been con­di­tioned by too many Twi­light Zone episodes, Fight Club, and M. Night Shya­malan movies, but I expect­ed a twist end­ing that nev­er came.

I’ve touched on sev­er­al of Moon’s more obvi­ous inspi­ra­tions, but I’m also remind­ed of Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris remake, in which a clone-like crea­ture mur­ders his orig­i­nal. Cloning is just begin­ning to enter the zeit­geist, hav­ing recent­ly fig­ured into the brain­dead action­er The Island but also the more con­tem­pla­tive Nev­er Let Me Go, based on the high­ly regard­ed nov­el by Kazuo Ishig­uro. Clones may very well prove to be the next zom­bies or vam­pires.

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