Written by Nathan Parker
Directed by Duncan Jones
As referred to previously, cinematic science fiction has a clear demarcation line as pre- and post-Star Wars. In making Moon, first-time feature director Duncan Jones was intent on creating a world that felt like those earlier films, making sure characters took precedence over special effects. You would be right to think the setting of Moon resembles Ridley Scott’s worlds from Alien and Blade Runner. This is a very industrial world; the shiny veneer of the future was worn off a long time ago. It also evokes that sense of loneliness I’ve mentioned when discussing The Man Who Fell to Earth and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Jones is another filmmaker who sees space as a very vast and empty place.
Sometime in the near future, an oil crisis drove civilization to the brink of destruction. Humanity recovered, and now Lunar Industries oversees the production of helium-3, a fusion-based energy source derived from lunar soil. The mining facility is almost completely automated but does require a human to be present for maintenance and repairs when needed. This is currently Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), nearing the end of his three-year contract when another maintenance worker will arrive and take his place. Sam’s only companion is the facility’s A.I. GERTY (voiced by Kevin “Creepy” Spacey).
Live communications are impossible as the relay satellite was knocked out of commission during a solar storm. Thus, Sam must wait for prerecorded messages to be transmitted and downloaded. While on the moon, he’s missed the birth of his first child, and his wife is struggling to deal with his absence. Things begin to take a strange turn when Sam experiences hallucinations of a teenage girl and bearded, disheveled man. These visual distortions cause him to have an accident while out checking a harvester one day. And this accident leads Sam to discover a secret that will explode his entire world.
So much credit has to be given to Sam Rockwell for what is basically a one-man show. Some supporting players make small contributions through videos he receives, but the weight of this film is entirely in his hands. He plays both a man in the process of being at his peak physical form as well as dying from the inside out. Watching that deterioration has some truly heartbreaking moments. We certainly get to know Sam quite well as he’s the only human character we spend considerable time with. Even GERTY, who is present, is very much a computer program that only hints at what might be considered human.
At its core, Moon is a film about the exploitation of labor. Sam is doing a job that has both deteriorative effects on a person physically and mentally. His existence is about toiling for the sake of a corporation with promises dangled on a stick to keep him going. These dreams are so real that when he hits a particular moment where it becomes clear that they aren’t reachable, it tears out his soul. It’s also a film about how as laborers, we need solidarity, that there is little difference between workers and that we should see each other in the other’s face. Sam refuses to simply go along and believe a beautiful lie anymore, which leads him to take drastic measures.
On an even larger scale, Moon asks questions about identity. How do you know you are you? What does it mean to be you? If I am in love with someone and discover they were never real or I saw something intended for another, are my emotions real or not? There’s also a quiet acceptance of death at one point, a meditation on mortality and how no matter how big an impact we believe we have made, we’ll pass from this universe and not be able to take any of our dreams with us.
Moon is a slow film that creates a “ticking bomb” but doesn’t force the audience through a high-speed battle or special effects bonanza. It creates a destination that Sam cannot avoid, much like all people know there is a time coming in the future where their life will end. We don’t behave with urgency about that awareness; we just keep living and try to do the best we can to delay that moment. No matter how far we go from Earth, we cannot escape being human.