By Peggy Nelson
Moon – 2009 – dir. Duncan Jones
In Moon (dir. Duncan Jones, 2009), Sam Rockwell plays the scruffy hipster-next-door on the moon, who turns out to be both more and less than what he seems. With impressive set design, constructed with tiny models instead of CGI, Moon inhabits not the 1960s techno-future of visible progress, but the 1970s paranoid present of hidden ulterior motives. In a way, Moon recalls not so much the actual space race, but the aftermath of plastic modules on the kitchen table, with an excess of glue and tiny pieces that don’t seem to fit anymore.
Drawing from influences ranging from 2001: A Space Odyssey (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968), Solyaris (dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972), Total Recall (dir. Paul Verhoeven, 1990), Silent Running (dir. Douglas Trumbull, 1972), Blade Runner (dir. Ridley Scott, 1982) and, weirdly, The Parent Trap (David Swift, 1961), Moon presents a clean, empty space, full of white, slightly curving surfaces against the stark grey and black of the lunar environment. The moon has been colonized by machines and blocky sans-serif fonts, which have been installed to mine a special kind of rock-held helium from its surface, the clean, efficient, abundant energy that is fueling civilization back on earth. The lunar enterprise is maintained in person by a single individual, Sam Bell (Rockwell), whose job it is to oversee the machines for a three-year stint.
Machined environments might look cool, but they make for a lonely life. For companionship Sam has a free-range AI computer, nicknamed GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), and pre-recorded video hookups from his family and his corporate bosses back on earth. He also talks to himself a lot. But within all these elements are clues to something else, for the system is not as clean and efficient as it seems. It has broken down, incrementally. The video hookups are supposed to be live links, but the live capability has broken and no one has the time or know-how to fix it. GERTY looks like a very used washing machine on wheels, with a 1980s-style “face” screen that displays emoticons, and various messages and reminders on post-it notes stuck to various parts of his anatomy. And Sam himself has drifted a fair amount from the fitness-and-efficiency Type-A astronaut he styled himself at the beginning. When the film opens it is almost the end of Sam’s three years, and he has grown a beard, put his feet up, and made small but accumulating diversions from the efficiency aesthetic, looking more like hippie gardener Lowell from Silent Running than Right Stuff John Glenn. And, most troublingly, there are increasingly ambiguous messages in the videos from his family back on earth.
But it doesn’t matter, his time is almost up, just a few more shipments to send back to earth and then he will finally punch out and return home.
Then something goes wrong.
One of the machines really breaks down, and in heading out to the surface to repair the damage, other gaps in the story appear. Until, in a cascade of different puzzle pieces clicking into place, we (and Sam) realize that he’s been inhabiting a quite different environment from what he has been told.
But that’s not the end of the story, the “big reveal” that concludes 2001 or Blade Runner. The significant breakdown occurs very close to the beginning. Because what Duncan Jones is interested in is not so much the paranoid trajectory, the understory holding up the surface veneer. Rather like The Parent Trap, he is interested in, well, NOW what do we do about it? And that’s where Moon gets different, and very interesting.
Ok, alienation is a given. We are surrounded by machines, emptiness and false promises. What of it? An even closer influence on Jones is of course “Major Tom,” David Bowie (and Jones’ father), who has played alienated aliens both onscreen (Man Who Fell to Earth, dir. Nicholas Roeg, 1972), and off (Ziggy Stardust, Bowie’s alien alter ego of indeterminate gender from the 1970s). This essential aloneness in the middle of society was a central tenet of existentialist philosophy; and, reformatted slightly as an essential aloneness in the middle of nature, has been a similar theme in the American West. Space travel is an extension of the western narrative: the self-sufficient yet lonely cowboy, the launching out into the unknown, the fraught encounters with alien others, the evocative yet silent geographies.
Sam has a mystery to investigate, a problem to solve, not much time to do it, and powerful forces arrayed against him. So the film works as a mystery and a bit of a silent, running chase. But Moon investigates a deeper mystery, a more troubling problem. What makes us human, Jones offers, are our relationships with others. And, importantly, it doesn’t count if it’s too mediated. GERTY is almost human, Kevin Spacey’s smooth suburban tones go a long way towards enlivening the emoticons, and playing with the possibility of motivational ambiguity and dread we know from HAL. Pre-recorded videos are evidence from humans, connected to something real through causal chains of the appropriate type. But none of these is direct human contact. Sam comes to realize that much of what he thought was going on has been one-way, in his mind only. And the strength of his personal belief doesn’t count. What does count is the existence on the other end. He cannot really start to figure out the puzzle, to take initiative, to create a new reality, until he has been heard by at least one other real person, in real time, and in real space.
A clean, efficient system is – not undesirable, but actually not possible. Mutations in the code are not messy mistakes, but essential elements. Sam’s story rewrites the space narrative from within, using outer space to highlight inner space. It’s not that we can’t or shouldn’t go out there – Moon actually is quietly optimistic about our eventual extension beyond the planet – but that journeying further out might mean journeying further in at the same time. Something that Right Stuff John Glenn and the other astronauts were and are no stranger to, themselves.
Our mutant nature is not to be pitied, or cured. It is to be managed, perhaps; and our point of injury may yet become, if not our greatest asset, then at least a portal — although to what, we may not yet know.