It’s been ten years since the release of Moon, an incredibly underrated little sci-fi gem which, although generally little known, did very well with critics. Revisiting it a decade later, it stands out as a film just as thoughtful and engaging as later science fiction masterpieces such as Interstellar or Annihilation.
Directed by Duncan Jones, David Bowie’s kid (apparently, he prefers Duncan to Zowie), the film follows the character Sam Bell, who’s spent the past three years stuck on his own in a base on the Moon. He’s in charge of overseeing the mining and transportation of Helium-3, a material which has effectively ended Earth’s energy concerns and is something scientists have genuinely theorised may be found in abundance within the Lunar surface.
Sam is, at the start of the film, just coming up to the end of his three-year contract, with two weeks left to go before he can go back to his home and his family. But with only a sinister, Kevin Spacey voiced robot called Gerty for company, even two weeks more might be too long. He’s starting to see things, he’s getting headaches, and then, inexplicably, he encounters someone who looks and sounds exactly like him.
The film was credited on its release for being a return to an older style of science fiction filmmaking, with an emphasis on practical effects as well as CGI, and a story that puts more emphasis on ideas about human nature and the future of technology than on explosions. Gerty, with its monotone, trying-to-be-reassuring voice, and complete lack of any actual human features beyond a smiling emoji graphic for a face, instantly drew comparisons to Hal 9000, but this is only the most obvious comparison that can be made to 2001: A Space Odyssey and other, similar hard science-fiction films.
Moon also echoes that film in showcasing a broadly realistic, scientifically accurate vision of the future (at least until it’s revealed what’s going on with Sam’s double), that keeps things feeling grounded and within the realms of plausibility. There’s no huge CGI vista’s of spaceships or alien armies here – instead it evokes popular images of real life expeditions to space and to the Moon. It’s main focus, of one man stuck on his own, utterly isolated from the rest of humanity, also brings to mind stuff like Silent Running and Solaris.
As such, it instantly stood out from among the other films that were released that year, and I remember knowing it was one I needed to see. This might have been mostly down to the trailer as much as anything, which for my money is still among the best I’ve ever seen for creating a sense of intrigue, and enticing you to go and watch the actual film. In many ways it is somewhat misleading in how it promotes it, as it seems to sell the film as being a much more psychological, horror-driven story. In fact, the final film leans much more into standard science fiction concepts and tropes as it finally reveals what’s going on, but nevertheless, it is by and large the same story of isolation and struggle that the trailer seems to set up.
To say much more about the final piece is pretty difficult without going into spoiler territory, so if this all sounds up your street then you might want to check it out before reading much further – as this is genuinely a film where, for a good section of the runtime, it is best to be in the dark as to what’s going on.
As noted, what initially seems to be set up as a psychological tale about a man trapped alone in space, slowly losing his marbles, ends up as doing something slightly, though not wholly different. It quickly becomes apparent that him encountering his own double is actually the result of cloning. The original Sam Bell is in fact already back on Earth with his family, whilst copies of him are routinely created and then dispatched every three years in order to save the company the costs of having to train entirely new personnel.
This is a twist that did disappoint me originally. Firstly, it’s perhaps not the most realistic idea ever – it stretches plausibility abit to imagine that this is something the company would actually do. Even if they really did care so little about their workers human rights, there’s no way a secret clone army would actually be more efficient than just getting a new person every three years. It would be a ludicrous way of doing things, and considering we know the robots are pretty much capable of running most of the base by themselves anyway, it’s never really justified why all this has been set up.
This isn’t to much of an issue though, because it’s not really the main focus of the story, and it’s no less realistic than a lot of other, similar films. Half the episodes of Black Mirror, for example, are just as unlikely when you actually start to think about it. And in The Truman Show, are we really supposed to buy that an entire island would be completely closed off and engineered, just to control the life of one man?
It’s simply not feasible, but that doesn’t matter, because the film is about a whole lot more than just the mechanics of how its world operates. This is part of it, but it’s also just as concerned about how our lives are controlled and twisted – by capitalism, by TV, by all of wider society. Similarly, Moon isn’t really all that bothered about how the cloning process works exactly, but rather about discussing much more universal and meaningful themes of alienation, identity, and exploitation.
The second reason this twist works a bit less than it should is because it is, I’d argue, simply a lot less interesting than the more psychologically driven kind of film the trailer seemed to promise. But again, this isn’t too major an issue since, while the stuff Bell’s seeing might not simply be a result of his going mad, it does still touch on these kind of themes. It remains, at its core, a story about isolation, as we see Bell struggle to deal both with his being cut off from the rest of the world, and the revelations that his whole identity is largely a lie, and there is no home to go back to.
It’s a film that’s highly reminiscent of stuff like Black Mirror, as both use fairly old sci-fi tropes to try and say something new about the world we’re in, and the systems that trap us. The final act of the film in particular is hugely engaging, as one version of Bell tries to escape and to fight back against the company, and the other faces up to the fact that the clones have a shelf life of three months, and begins to rapidly deteriorate.
Moon is a star studded production, which features cameos from the likes of Kaya Scodelario, Benedict Wong, and Matt Berry. But the whole thing is carried by Sam Rockwell, who plays Bell, as the vast majority of the runtime essentially consists of him talking to himself. As such it could quite easily have gotten boring quickly in less capable hands. But instead he’s engaging throughout in his roles as each clone, and you can see throughout the film that these are two separate and distinct personalities.
While they are both clones of the same person, with the same memories and traits, there is one who’s been at the base for three months, and one who’s only just got there, and as a result we get a really good examination of how these years of seclusion have the changed the kind of person Bell is. Coming face to face with what is essentially his past/future self allows both to reflect on each of their failings and to grow, and the ever looming countdown to “rescue” by the company becomes increasingly suspenseful as we get more attached to these characters, and more desperate for at least one of them to escape.
Beyond the plot and the performances, this is a film with some great production design and soundtracks. The whole thing looks beautiful, with some gorgeous shots of the Moon and it’s views of the Earth, and the inside of the base feels genuinely tight and claustrophobic. And the score, from Clint Mansell, is absolutely phenomenal, it honestly being half the reason the film stuck with me as it has.
As such, Moon is perhaps one of the more memorable films from 2009, and is well worth revisiting – or if you’ve never seen it before, visiting. It has its flaws, and certainly isn’t quite as clever or profound as it clearly wants to be. It’s brainy but it’s saying little that hasn’t been said before – essentially, it’s Cast Away in space, with a robotic Wilson. But it nevertheless is a memorable and engaging watch, and should still stand alongside the likes of Interstellar as a film which does actually explore the kinds of ideas that only sci-fi can.