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.

Offi­cial movie site:

Buy the Blu-ray, DVD, or Clint Mansell’s excel­lent sound­track CD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

For All Mankind

For All Mankind movie poster


It was a weird expe­ri­ence to finally see the orig­i­nal film for the sound­track to which I’ve lis­tened to count­less times. Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois’ Apollo: Atmos­pheres & Sound­tracks is a gor­geous piece of work, and very much col­ored my expec­ta­tions of what the film would be. Hav­ing long pic­tured a largely abstract com­pi­la­tion of oth­er­worldly lunar footage, I was sur­prised to find For All Mankind a more straight­for­ward doc­u­men­tary than what was already in my head. (Bits and pieces from the com­pi­la­tion album Music for Films III also appear.)

Unlike In the Shadow of the Moon, the 2007 fea­ture doc­u­men­tary on the same sub­ject, For All Mankind exclu­sively uses orig­i­nal footage taken dur­ing the Apollo Mis­sions, much of it by the astro­nauts them­selves. The absence of new nar­ra­tion or footage rightly places the empha­sis solely on the achieve­ments of the orig­i­nal par­tic­i­pants. But a draw­back is that the inter­vie­wees on the sound­track are not iden­ti­fied (the Cri­te­rion DVD edi­tion includes an option to dis­play sub­ti­tles iden­ti­fy­ing the speakers).

For All MankindOpen the pod bay doors, HAL

I have lit­tle to add to Matthew Dessem’s excel­lent review on The Cri­te­rion Con­trap­tion blog, or to my own thoughts on In the Shadow of the Moon. Three small observations:

  • I was com­pletely igno­rant that NASA first began space­walks dur­ing the Apollo mis­sions. I was under the impres­sion they began dur­ing the space shut­tle mis­sions of my youth. In ret­ro­spect, it makes per­fect sense that NASA would test space­walks in orbit over the Earth before attempt­ing to step out of a cap­sule onto the moon, but: Wow!
  • The astro­nauts were very con­scious of Stan­ley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Each astro­naut could bring one cas­sette tape to play on a portable deck, and one chose Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathus­tra”. Another describes see­ing the moon sur­face up close as being like some­thing from 2001.
  • Due to the film’s nature of being com­prised of orig­i­nal footage, there’s per­haps too much of the astro­nauts goof­ing off in zero-G, and not enough of the spec­tac­u­lar lunar footage. But it goes to show that even the pilots selected for being the most sane and calm peo­ple in the word still turn to excited kids when play­ing in outer space (with the rare excep­tion to prove the rule).

Cri­te­rion DVD info:

Cri­te­rion Con­trap­tion review:

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to me.

In the Shadow of the Moon

In the Shadow of the Moon movie poster


In the Shadow of the Moon may not be the most rad­i­cal or rev­e­la­tory doc­u­men­tary ever made, but if the point was to get out of the way of some true Amer­i­can badasses and let them tell their story, then it should be counted as a success.

The DVD edi­tion is intro­duced by co-producer Ron Howard, whom, along with Tom Hanks, is an avowed space-nut and maker of the great Hol­ly­wood retelling of the Apollo 13 mis­sion. He doesn’t address the big ques­tion: why a big the­atri­cal doc­u­men­tary on NASA’s Apollo Pro­gram, now? Is it sim­ply that the afore­men­tioned true Amer­i­can badasses are frankly get­ting on a bit, and that this is one last chance for them to strut their Right Stuff?

In the Shadow of the MoonI can see your house from here

The biggest clue is that the film takes pains to place the mis­sions in a his­tor­i­cal and polit­i­cal con­text of the Cold War, civil rights, the Viet Nam War, and the spate of assas­si­na­tions the coun­try suf­fered in the late six­ties. When Kennedy called in 1961 for NASA to land a man on the moon within the decade, it was a truly auda­cious and inspir­ing moment. As astro­naut Gene Cer­nan put it, “sci­ence fic­tion.” The almost incal­cu­la­ble amounts of money and impetu­ous were there, sur­viv­ing even the assas­si­na­tion of the man that inspired the aston­ish­ing endeavor.

Time passes. Walls fall, the White House falls afoul of dimin­ish­ing returns. Sub­tract the Cold War space race with the Soviet Union, and NASA reduces its ambi­tion to decades of launch­ing spy & cor­po­rate satel­lites and per­form­ing zero-g exper­i­ments in the Space Shut­tle (although I must say detect­ing anti-matter sounds pretty cool), los­ing the Apollo 11 tapes, and appar­ently too busy with con­stant main­te­nance on the Inter­na­tional Space Sta­tion to do any­thing else.

In 2004, Bush makes a fool out of him­self by call­ing for NASA to land Amer­i­can boots on Mars by 2020. This time an entire nation rolls its eyes and knows it’s a flimsy, sparkly dis­trac­tion from the many dis­as­ters of his term of office (and this, before Kat­rina). Maybe I’m stretch­ing things to fine a polit­i­cal cri­tique in the tim­ing of this film, but that’s my the­ory. It’s a kick in the pants — in a time of crew cuts, tail fins, and assas­si­na­tions, the United States landed on the freak­ing moon nine freak­ing times.

In the Shadow of the MoonI want my MTV

As a nobody web designer, I don’t mean to dimin­ish the work of post-Apollo rocket sci­en­tists and brave astro­nauts; only that the momen­tum kick-started by Kennedy has sput­tered out by almost any mea­sure. After all, what has NASA done lately that one might call, bug-eyed, “sci­ence fic­tion”? I do love the Mars explorer robots Pathfinder, Spirit, and Oppor­tu­nity, though! I love robots on Mars. Robots on Mars are neat-o, man. Hi, robots on Mars!

One gripe: In the Shadow of the Moon has a cheesy score, espe­cially dis­ap­point­ing in light of Brian Eno & Daniel Lanois’ gor­geous music for For All Mankind, a doc­u­men­tary film of lunar footage from the Apollo missions.

Offi­cial movie site:

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to me.