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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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).

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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.

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