Compare Duncan Jones’ Moon to Christopher Nolan’s Inception and one gets a crystal clear idea of both the divergent types of science-fiction (hard and soft), as well as the disparity in popularity between the two styles. Hard science fiction has been on the decline for roughly the last 30 years, and it seemingly reached its peak in the wake of 2001: A Space Odyssey and all of the films that followed it. That said, even the films that followed and were influenced by it— Alien, Blade Runner, Outland, Silent Running —were certainly moving closer to the realm of sci-fi fantasy. To define the difference it would be hard to find a better quote than Rod Serling who said: “fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science Fiction is the improbable made possible.”
Inception is clearly the impossible made probable by its vague technology, while Moon presents an improbable world made very possible. To probe the further differences one can look at the budgets and box office take. Nolan’s film was a massive blockbuster, costing $160 million and eventually grossing close to $300 million. Moon was only allowed a $5 million budget, which isn’t surprising given that it was Duncan Jones’ first film, and it disappointingly grossed just a shade over that budget. Audience demand seems to ring out loud and clear: hard science fiction is out, science fiction fantasy is in.
The film stars Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell, an astronaut working alone on the moon for Lunar Industries, a company that has found a way to harvest the top soil of the moon and extract its helium-3 which proves to be an immensely powerful energy source for earth. On the moon base Sam’s only companion is the robot GERTY, voiced by Kevin Spacey. After an accident on the moon’s surface, Sam awakens back in the base to find it on lockdown. He eventually manipulates GERTY into allowing him to leave whereupon he discovers the site of the accidental crash, as well as another version of himself trapped inside. The other Sam is still alive, and eventually he awakens to meet, well, himself. The two begin interacting, tentatively at first, eventually becoming friends (as much as one could befriend one’s self) and join to discover the truth behind what’s happening.
If the first paragraph implies that I’m lamenting the loss of hard science fiction or that I’m implying that Moon is a better film than Inception, then it’s slightly misleading; Moon isn’t as good. However, the reason for bringing up the two is to abstract the films to their genre forms and use that as a springboard for analysis. This is a thoroughly antiquated film, and it doesn’t hide this fact. There are copious references to sci-fi of years past: GERTY’s eye along with Spacey’s monotone voice is a clear reference to HAL, the concept of implanted memories belongs to Blade Runner, the motif of a man tending to a garden in a future world is from Silent Running, while the antiseptic and claustrophobic set designs are drawn from Alien (itself inspired by 2001). The film’s old-fashioned approach isn’t merely confined to these references, as the use of miniatures and physical sets hearken back to a world of filmmaking before the invasion and pervasiveness of CGI. There is still CGI in the film, but it’s skillfully mixed in with virtuosic in-camera effects and the tangible designs built in front of the camera.
Perhaps the greatest accolade the film deserves is that it manages to pull off this creative world on its minuscule budget. We’ve become so accustomed to the idea that sci-fi films have to be monolithic (pun intended) blockbusters that break the bank for producers. Moon is admirable in that it reminds us of a time when movie magic wasn’t limited to budget or what could be produced on a computer. It reminds us that there was once a hands-on craftsmanship to filmmaking combined with an enthusiasm for creating imaginative, believable worlds in front of the camera rather than in post-production by geeks on computers. From a visual perspective, the result is a film with more warmth and realism than I’ve seen from a science fiction film in ages. In fact, the only parts that fail from a technical perspective are those that do use CGI.
But if the film is laudatory from a technical perspective, the same can’t be said for the drama. Its greatest failing is simply in its story and narrative. I find it hard to reconcile that a film with so much passion that went into the technicalities (and the acting, more on that later) would be so humdrum in story and emotion. Perhaps the problem is that, with all the copious references, Moon utterly fails to distinguish itself, as if it couldn’t decide what kind of film it wanted to be. Sometimes a film’s ability to defy pigeonholing is a good thing, but here it manifests itself in an awkward, amalgamated mess of influences that never gels into its own individual entity. Perhaps the perfect example is in the lack of emotion, drama and tension behind the mysteries. When Sam 6 discovers Sam 5, the typical “WTF?” revelation is replaced by a rather prosaic sense of the ordinary. The same thing applies when the two Sams discover the truth behind why there are two of them.
(Note: the following paragraphs contain spoilers)
Moon does leave some lingering mysteries for the audience to think about afterward, especially considering that we never uncover the details behind exactly how the situation came about. “What happened to the original Sam?” for instance is an obvious question, and there are multiple possibilities. Perhaps he served his term, came home and made a deal with Lunar Industries to use his memory to create the clones, and is now living at home. In the emotional confrontation between Sam 5 and his daughter via a phone call, near the end, she calls for her dad even though he’s never shown on screen. Did Sam’s wife get remarried, or is the man she was calling for the real Sam? Of course, there are a multitude of questions over, say, the nature of Sam’s vision. In a Q&A on the DVD extras, Jones said that he thought the bond between clone and original may be as close as twins, and that even though the clones were based off the original, they may still be sharing a bond strong enough for the clones to see visions of the original Sam’s life.
If there is a saving grace in the narrative it’s Sam Rockwell’s dynamic, virtuosic performance. Perhaps it’s a given that part of the talent of actors is measured by their versatility and ability to transform themselves into diverse characters, but we rarely get to see that talent exhibited in a single film with an actor playing off themselves. Somehow, Rockwell has managed to play two Sams that are individuated enough that we frequently forget the same actor is playing them, yet enough alike that we never forget it is, essentially, the same person. This is truly spectacular when you consider how many scenes Rockwell has when he’s playing off nothing more than an intuitive understanding of what his other character will be doing in another take and, conversely, remembering what he did in the previous take to know how to react.
But Rockwell is more like the film’s technical effects in that he impresses us more than he moves us. For a character coming to grips with his existence as a manipulated clone, he’s almost too composed throughout. The moments of levity seem out of place (like the Sams feuding over Sam 5’s insistence on playing the song “Walking on Sunshine”), and the few emotional moments are rather flat, lacking the pathos and empathy of, say, Roy Batty’s closing monologue in Blade Runner. Even GERTY seems sadly underused in the film. The intended subversion of the “homicidal robot alone on a spacecraft/station with human(s)” works, at least to the extent that we find ourselves questioning GERTY’s loyalty, motives and programming, but there’s absolutely none of the lingering complexities or real humanism of HAL that made him a classic character. So, yes, Moon is, in a sense, disappointing, but there’s no law that says we can’t learn from the good and bad in films that have a plentitude of both. The good that should be taken away from Moon is that there’s still a place for physical effects, sets, art design and substantial character studies in science fiction; we’ve just forgotten how to mold those things into great films.