The late, great novelist J.G. Ballard explained that he moved into the realm of science fiction since it was the only literary genre which seemed equipped to explain the psychopathologies of the present day – increasingly fractured societies, the sinister omnipresence of visual media such as television and advertising, and the effects on the human psyche both of rampant consumerism and the ongoing underlying spectre of nuclear annihilation. Dystopian visions of the near and far-future have long been an established literary device for projecting and exploring the human condition in the present day.
The cinematic tradition of looking to the heavens goes back as far as Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902), but the genre only acquired serious critical appraisal with the clutch of films coming in the wake of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) exploring similar terrain trodden in the best sci-fi literature. This tradition, exemplified by the likes of Solyaris (1972), Dark Star (1974) and Silent Running (1972), is what Moon, the debut feature from British director Duncan Jones (née Zowie Bowie), aspires to and ultimately must be judged against.
An introductory faux-advert economically sets the scene: we are in a near-future in which the company Lunar Industries is harvesting helium-3 from the Moon’s surface for use as a clean power source back on Earth. The mining process is fully automated except for solitary Lunar employee Sam Bell who has the lonely job of extracting and despatching the valuable element whilst also ensuring the moon base’s smooth operation. He intermittently receives transmissions from his wife and baby daughter back home, but aside from these brief communications his sole company moon-side is his robot assistant GERTY, essentially a kind of HAL 9000 with IM-style emoticon faces.
As we join the action, Sam is two weeks from the end of his three-year contract and is naturally looking forward to returning home to his family. There are, however, signs that the extreme isolation has taken its toll, both in terms of his physical deterioration and, most worryingly, his increasing tendency to have hallucinatory visions of a strange woman on the base with him. When on a routine rover-bound excursion he once again sees a vision of a woman on the lunar surface, causing him to crash his vehicle into one of the large harvesters, knocking him unconscious.
Sam awakes in the infirmary to be told by GERTY that he has had an accident and that he must rest up and that a rescue team has been dispatched to bring him home. Yet overhearing a communication between his robotic helper and Lunar Industries management makes him suspicious of what is actually happening, prompting him to fool GERTY into thinking a meteor storm has damaged the outside of the moon base, and so allowing him outside to investigate the rover crash site. Once there, he finds the unthinkable: the injured, unconscious figure of Sam Bell.
Such a plot point might in another film come as the big reveal, yet here it is really only the device through which the film allows itself to open up and explore its metaphysical philosophical themes. Once reawakened, the injured Sam and the other Sam are inevitably hostile to the other’s presence: who is the ‘real’ Sam Bell? Though practically identical, there are some clear differences between them: the ‘new’ Sam is fitter but more temperamental, compared with the more slovenly but humourous and wise ‘old’ Sam. Despite their antipathy to each other, the two Sams must together try to figure out why the other exists, and what exactly is going on at Lunar Industries.
It should be emphasised that Moon is not on the grand scale of spectacle of either 2001 or many another science fiction film but this is not to the film’s discredit; director Jones has made as visually satisfying a film one could expect for the meagre $5 million budget at his disposal, never trying to reach beyond his limited resources or distracting with visual trickery away from what is a cerebral rather than visceral piece of work. His restraint in generally eschewing visual and sonic crash bang wallop is something to be admired, as is the thoughtful production design which makes the clean lines and brilliant whites of the moon base ragged around the edges and lived-in, nicely highlighting the theme of the clash between humanity and technological sterility, as well as serving as visual homages to a multitude of cinematic forefathers. But for a slight mis-step at the very end, it should also be praised that while the story clearly throws up political and moral issues of contemporary relevance, it seeks not to supply these questions with simplistic, easy-to-swallow answers.
Interactions between the two Sams would be rather unclear were it not for the masterful central dual lead performance from actor Sam Rockwell, carefully delineating between the two to provide enough ambiguity as to whether they are the same person or different people entirely, and giving emotional depth and insight to the at-times flat dialogue. It inevitably recalls Jeremy Irons’ similarly brilliant solo double-act in Dead Ringers (1989), Nicholas Cage’s Kaufman twins in Adaptation (2002), but also Rockwell’s earlier rotating Jekyll and Hyde show in the under-appreciated Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002).
There are many positives about Moon, and aside from a few gaping plot holes there is a level of internal consistency which makes it a more coherent and satisfying watch than Sunshine (2007), the other recent British entry into the space film canon, and a film which for all of its genuine brilliance, came horribly unstuck in its third act. Yet for all of the things that it does achieve, Moon doesn’t entirely satisfy. While its sober tone certainly allows for space for contemplation, the story itself lacks the metaphysical profundity of Solyaris, and the ultimate feeling one derives from the film is not nearly as overwhelming; despite the thought-provoking themes, there is a certain flatness to proceedings. So too, by dint of the nature of the story itself, is there not enough chance to identify with the central character, thereby necessarily creating a feeling of emotional detachment. These are ultimately problems inherent to the story, for which Jones can be criticized; but as a director, there is enough in this thoughtful, odd, low-key film to suggest good things to come.