Searching for Long-Range Comms

Moon is a 1970s psychological sci-fi movie artfully translated into 2009.

I think a movie like Moon plays best if you know as little as possible about it going in. I’d seen just a few stills from the movie, and read the encapsulated reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and even that little bit kind of hurt the experience, because I already knew an important part of the premise and was just waiting for it to play out. So if you haven’t seen it yet and want to keep the surprise: it’s very good, the music is excellent, Sam Rockwell does a great job, and if you like thoughtful science fiction movies (especially from the early-to-mid-70s), you won’t be disappointed seeing it in a theater. I’ll save the outright spoilers for after the break, but read on at your own peril.

One thing I noticed about the encapsulated reviews: almost all of the negative ones included some lame pun or some clumsy reference to “Space Oddity” (the movie’s directed by Duncan Jones, David Bowie’s son). Which ruins it for anybody else who wants to write something about the movie, because now I’m too self conscious to say anything for fear of its being taken as a reference. So I can’t say it’s “atmospheric” (even though it is) or that it has a “dark side” or an “identity crisis,” or even that it “mines” the best parts of older movies. What I can say is this, though: “Ground Control to Major Tom: This Moon is full… of suspense!”

What’s best about the movie is how it straddles four years of science fiction without ever feeling dated, clumsy, or forced. It perfectly captures the spirit of early 70s sci-fi movies, the deliberately-paced, introspective dramas built around one weird concept, before Star Wars came along and made science fiction the realm of the blockbuster. Its most obvious influences are Silent Running or 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it also incorporates bits of Alien (for its depiction of future corporations) and Solaris (for its depiction of the psychological implications of space missions). I could totally imagine seeing stills from the movie in Starlog magazine, next to shots from “Space: 1999” or super sneak previews of Blade Runner. And although it’s an original story, it wouldn’t have surprised me at all to hear that it was based on a short story from OMNI magazine. It feels like a movie from around 1976 that they waited until 2009 to make.

Except that it couldn’t possibly have been made before 2009, because its tone and sensibility are completely contemporary. The visual effects are better than you could’ve achieved in the days before CGI: never particularly flashy, but always entirely believable. And the music and visual design have a very turn-of-the-millenium British feel to them. Leaving the theater and checking my e-mail on a cell phone was a disorienting experience; the movie is still set in the future, but the future isn’t as distant as it used to be. The future of 70s sci-fi was always far enough away that we could safely treat the movies as allegory; Moon has a strange feeling of inevitability about it.

But more than that: it manages to be completely self-aware without being self-conscious. By that, I mean that it’s made for and by people who are familiar with all the concepts explored by science fiction over the past 50 years. It feels weird calling it a “straightforward” story, because so much weird stuff happens, but it’s got a forward momentum that never pauses to point out how weird these developments are. And to explain that requires a spoiler warning.

Moon takes concepts that filled earlier sci-fi — cloning, evil future corporations, going mad in outer space, and robots that will inevitably turn on their masters — and treats them all as a given. Sam Bell discovering his own body inside a rover is obviously a dramatic point in the movie, but what impressed me was how realistically it was handled. He has an initial freak-out, and he and the audience are left wondering whether it’s all in his mind. But it doesn’t take him long to try to get back to normal, and to bring up the obvious word “clone.” That reveal does change the focus of the rest of the story, but it’s not some kind of journey of discovery or a mission to wipe out the clones or an introspective examination of what is “identity.” Instead, it’s more a case of: so I’m a clone, what do I do now?

Still, the movie does a great job of leaving the audience guessing, still thinking that maybe it’s all in Sam’s mind. I think the most clever scene of them all is when GERTY spills the whole story. It’s so straightforward and said so matter-of-factly — but not coldly, which would spin the movie off in a different direction — that the part of your brain that’s still processing the plot is moving forward, while the part of the brain that’s staying detached and trying to analyze everything is sent reeling. Wait, this isn’t how movies work, it says. That’s supposed to be the major discovery of the whole story. There must be more to it; I’d better keep watching. The two Sams fighting on screen start speaking for the two halves of the audience’s mind: one’s immediately looking for the secret room built by the evil corporation, the room that holds all of the cloned bodies, because hey, I’ve seen enough science fiction to know that that’s how it works. The other part is just trying to go back to normal, waiting to see what happens next.

Another ingenious play on that is the scene in which GERTY helps Sam enter his password. Evil robots turning on their masters has become so established that we barely entertain the idea that there could be a robot who really does just want to help. The twist is that there isn’t a twist.

By the end of the movie, the two Sams and their robot pal have described a plan and then carried out that same plan with little deviation, and one of them is living out the end of his three-year lifespan much like Roy Batty at the end of Blade Runner. And like the “angry” Sam, the one who was trying to stay removed and figure out what was really going on this whole time, you get to leave this artificial little universe and are sent back to Earth.

So what was really going on the whole time? Is there a message in there somewhere, or is it “just” an homage to an older style of movie made with characters who are already fully aware of all the mysteries that those older movies tried to explore? That would be good enough on its own; it’s an interesting story. But I took it as a rejection of all the self-important introspection and navel-gazing of science fiction of the 70s, and the action-heavy sci-fi of the 80s. Realistically, if you were an average guy trapped alone on a space station for three years, and you confronted a clone of yourself created by an unscrupulous corporation that was trying to keep you from learning the secret, you wouldn’t go on an existential journey exploring the nature of identity. And you wouldn’t launch an action-packed assault on the station to bring down the bastards who’d done you wrong. You’d probably just want to talk, hang out, maybe play some ping pong, and remember the simple, enjoyable moments of the life you’ve been wanting to get back to.