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REVIEW – Moon (2009)

July 23, 2009

Sometimes it isn’t easy to love the cinema.  Increasingly, the greatest popular art form of the 20th Century has become a means of oppression  :  Every year, the summer blockbuster season lasts that little bit longer.  The season of empty months.  Months during which the few decent films that do make it into cinemas are instantly forced out by over-hyped sequels and works of distorted genre.  Works so disjointed and violent in their imagery that they have come to resemble twisted parodies of the world we know.  Works that do not seek to elevate our collective humanity but to pervert it by filling our poor throbbing skulls with whole new vistas of psychosis and paranoia.  Vistas we can only escape from with the help of consumer products, the antics of boy wizards and bellicose robots.  Vistas produced by a media-industrial complex that keeps us supine and malleable lest we realise the living hell that we have made of our collective existence.  A collective existence so cruel and unhinged that were we to grasp its true nature for even a second we would all run screaming into the streets, tearing at our clothes and flesh in a hideous and brutal attempt to somehow get clean and free of a system that has crushed us beneath its heel for far too long.

But then a film comes along that seems to recognise all of this.

Film Poster

Film Poster

Moon (2009) begins with Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) working on the dark side of the Moon harvesting Helium 3 for an energy company back on Earth.  Nearing the end of a three year contract, he is starting to feel isolated.  With the communications satellite down messages from home are limited to short videos, leaving him with only the base’s monotone-voiced AI (Kevin Spacey) for company.  In fact, Sam has started hallucinating.  When he drives out to investigate a broken-down harvester he sees someone outside and crashes his rover.  Sam then wakes up back at the base with the AI telling him that everything is okay.  But if everything is okay then why is Sam not allowed to leave the base to fix the harvester?  And why does the AI seem to be having real-time conversations with the suits back on Earth?  Eventually, Sam’s paranoia gets the better of him and he takes a rover out to the crash site and discovers someone in the wreckage that looks just like him.  In fact, you could say that he discovers himself.

The pacing of Moon is a lot closer to that of Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) or Stalker (1975) than it is to most science fiction films.  The plot covers what ground it needs to at a reduced pace because the plot is not the point.  The point is the ideas communicated by the plot, and that of Moon contains multitudes.

Film Poster

Film Poster

Ostensibly, the film is all about a man who discovers that he has been cloned.  Rockwell not only does a fantastic job of carrying the film by himself, he also manages to inject real differences into the younger and older versions of his character.  Young Sam is brash, aggressive and paranoid.  Older Sam is sentimental, whimsical and laid back.  The scenes in which the pair squabble and feel each other out have the feel of a generation clash.  Younger Sam is restless and demanding.  He wants to rip out all the wall panels in order to find a hidden cloning chamber.  As he crashes about the place, older Sam sits in a leather armchair with reading glasses and a cardigan calmly whittling blocks of wood to go into a model of his home town.  The urgency of youth clashes with the fatalism of experience and the two men start to fight.  It is the film’s only fight.  It ends inconclusively.  They apologise to each other afterwards.  There are no explosions or giant robots.  In a sense, this generation clash is the traditional Gothic doppelganger with a science fiction make-over.  As in James’ “The Jolly Corner” (1908), Poe’s “William Wilson” (1839) and Stevenson’s Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde (1886), the device is used to explore the duality of man by having the two halves confront each other.  In this case the two halves are youth and age : The two Sams are clearly very different people and yet they are the same person.

However, this is a rather facile reading of an enjoyably complex film.  The film is interested in human nature, but it is also interested in the structures that contain human nature.  Indeed, the film is not simply a matter of Sam being replaced by a clone.  As the older Sam looks around his home with eyes infused with the energy and urgency of youth, he uncovers a secret chamber.  This chamber contains not the means of cloning Sam but rather row upon row of dormant clones all awaiting activation.  In truth, both Sams are clones that have replaced other clones that came before them.  The moon base has always been staffed by clones of Sam Bell.  It is a distinct possibility that Sam Bell has never set foot on the Moon.

The film uses the ‘turtles all the way down’ nature of Sam’s identity to explore the complete insignificance of the individual to the institutions of capitalism.

capitalism

In one scene, the older Sam uncovers video files of previous Sams climbing into what they think is a cryogenics pod.  They all have the same laid back manner as the old Sam.  They all have varying degrees of facial hair and they all appear proud of what they have accomplished and are grateful to the company for having allowed them the opportunity.  The contrast with all of those Star Trek episodes in which people see radically different versions of themselves from other time-lines could not be more marked :  Sam has never had much free will.  He began his contract as an angry man but he always wound up as a sentimental and whimsically laid back person.  “I’ve changed” old Sam says to the AI early in the film with a real sense of pride.  But how much pride is there to be had in something that was genetically and environmentally destined to happen?  Something that had happened dozens of times before and which will probably happen a dozen times more after you die?  Something that almost certainly determined your eligibility for the job in the first place.  Because if you are going to clone someone for the purposes of making them work all alone on the Moon, you would want someone who is not only capable of handling the solitude, but also someone who would actually relax into the kind of lifestyle afforded by such conditions.

The most chilling aspects of Moon are the little flourishes that the company have inserted into Sam’s life for the purposes of keeping him sane and happy.  For example, if the woman playing Sam’s wife died, how many times have different Sams been cheered up and moved by the same videos?  It is like sentimental canned laughter : Sam after Sam receive emotional sustenance from a dead woman’s empty professions of love.  Similarly, the model that older Sam is working on took longer than three years to build and is clearly something unknowingly passed down from Sam to Sam.  What does it say about you as an individual that it is possible to predict that, a few years from now, you will develop a particular interest in a niche hobby?

This is the reality of our existence : Capitalism sees us not as individuals but as skill-sets.  If we die then we will be instantly replaced by someone with the same skills as us just as we replaced the people who came before us.  We are not special snowflakes, we are cogs in the gigantic wheels of capitalism.  Cogs that are all too easy to replace at short notice.  Our free time is effectively managed by markets that implant needs with advertising and PR and then satisfy them by means of mass production.  Has anyone asked for a remake of An American Werewolf in London?  Of course not, but if you build it they will come.

Science fiction is said by many to be an escapist genre and this goes some way to explaining the preponderance of fiercely individualistic stories.  Just as the ‘final frontier’ of space offers the promise of lebensraum to an increasingly urban population who find their rent money is translating into smaller and smaller properties, many traditional works of science fiction wallow in fantasies of agency.  Fantasies about living lives in which what you think, what you do and what you say actually matter.  Moon is all the more powerful a work of science fiction for its refusal to pay lip service to this most palliative of formulae.  In fact, it even presses the case beyond the boundaries of traditional SF.  One of the touchstones of Western intellectual life has been the belief in the primacy and value of emotional authenticity.  Hence all the works of art that stress the importance of how we feel.  But Moon suggests this too might well be a comforting illusion.  Sam lives three years of his life over and over again, convinced that he is growing as a person and genuinely in love with a woman back on Earth.  But the reality is that the entirety of his inner life is pre-scripted and mapped out.  His emotional state is predicted and factored into business models just like the Newtonian arcs of the rockets that carry Helium 3 back to Earth.  His personal triumphs and emotional reactions are simply neurological responses to carefully designed stimuli.  He is not free.  He is not unique.  He is not special.  He is not a unique and special snowflake.

Film Poster

Film Poster

While Moon lacks the grandiose visuals of Tarkovsky, Kubrick or even Danny Boyle’s magnificent Sunshine (2007), it is still a magnificently intelligent and demanding film that makes you work hard for the ideas it contains, ideas that are not only challenging and fascinating but also quite disturbing.  It is, quite simply, what cinematic science fiction should all be about.

6 Comments
  1. August 6, 2009 9:05 am

    Moon is all the more powerful a work of science fiction for its refusal to pay lip service to this most palliative of formulae.

    Well, not exactly. In the third act Sam2 becomes very much the traditional Gernsbackian science fiction hero: inquisitive, resourceful, competent. He solves the puzzle, engineers his own escape, sets up the answers for Sam3 and then spills the beans about the company. This is the biggest fantasy of agency there is; one good man can bring down the evil corporate through the righteous power of the truth.

    This rather undermines what has gone before.

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  2. August 6, 2009 9:08 am

    I would also quibble with: “They all have varying degrees of facial hair and they all appear proud of what they have accomplished and are grateful to the company for having allowed them the opportunity.” They all seem to be suffering from severe radiation sickness (just like Sam1) and they only thing they seem grateful for is the chance to lay down. I’m not sure it would make much difference to them if they knew the cryogenic box was actually a crematorium.

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  3. August 6, 2009 9:39 am

    I take your point on Sam2. I think my view of that was jaundiced by the radio chatter at the end suggesting that while his arrival and decision to spill the beans might well have caused hearings, the corporate media were against him from the beginning suggesting that nothing would change.

    I’m not sure about the previous Sams just wanting it all to end. The film drives home the idea that there is no psychological difference between the Sams other than the passage of time. Sam1 is in a similar situation to the previous Sams but he acts because he knows the truth. Had any of the previous Sams known the truth I think the implication is that they would have tried to do something too. Sam1 doesn’t cremate himself. He keeps going until the end.

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  4. August 6, 2009 10:22 am

    You are right that the chatter is inconclusive but I certainly read it as Sam2 being successful. I take the”insane or immigrant” line to be a joke, a pretty crass one to end such a film actually.

    Sam1 doesn’t cremate himself because he can use his death to serve some purpose (save the life of Sam3). He still essentially just lies down and dies.

    It fits with your reading of them (the Sams) being interchangeable cogs in the machine. They start off shiny and new like Sam2 and are eventually worn down and degraded like Sam1. Sam1 doesn’t have any agency of his own, he mocks Sam2 for hunting for the secret room, he just wants to water his plants.

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