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Film Review: Moon

Bottom line: I dug it.

I saw Star Trek. I saw The Watchmen. And IMO, Moon is the movie to see this year.

But I can’t review it without spoilers, so only click here if you don’t mind spoilers…

To me the best science fiction engages us in examining and questioning our own humanity, as Moon does. Moon raises a lot of interesting questions.

Moon is set in the future. A future in which humans have mined the moon for energy source helium 3 that has resolved our current energy crisis. At the beginning of the film, we’re introduced to Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), a tech with a three year contract to process helium 3, and return it to earth. Alone. His only companion is Gerty (voice of Kevin Spacey), a robot there to assist him and ensure his safety. The film begins at the end of Sam’s three-year stint, and we’re introduced to his wife & daughter by the video messages that he uses to communicate with them. The family can’t wait to be reunited.

But Sam begins to hallucinate, causing him to fall victim to an accident in his rover. After the accident, he presumably awakens in the infirmary with memory damage. But we soon learn that this isn’t the same Sam. Despite Gerty’s efforts to keep this Sam inside the base, he gets out and discovers the crashed rover with the first Sam still inside. This is where it gets interesting.

The two Sams recognize each other and realize that at least one of them is a clone. Ironically, they don’t get along very well at first, which raises the question:

If you met yourself, would you like you?

The first Sam confronts Gerty, who confirms that he too is only a clone of the original Sam, and that the video messages from his “family” are merely recordings intended for the original Sam. Lunar Industries has been cloning the original Sam Bell to work in three-year intervals, at which time the old Sam expires and a new one is awakened. I was heartbroken for the Sam clones.

What if you found out your whole life – your parents, your spouse, your child – weren’t real, but actually belonged to someone else? If you could go back to earth, would you be totally lost?

I’ll stop there with the spoilers.

In some ways Moon is similar to The Matrix, in which humans were unknowingly living in pods, bred as batteries for the AI that had programmed the matrix to make them believe they were living normal lives. In Moon the clones were being bred to do work, this time for an energy company, and were being misled about their pasts, futures, and purpose for existence.

And speaking of similarities, I read that there was some controversy over the extent to which director Duncan Jones had paid homage to Sci-Fi films of the past (e.g., 2001 A Space Odyssey, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). He intended them as homages, but some perceived them as theft. Moon has its own character(s) and fresh storyline, and the homages are made very obvious and don’t add anything of significance to the storyline, so I don’t think they are offensive at all.

Overall, Moon was enjoyable, with a storyline that engaged me not only in the plot, but also in further thought. Win.

For further reading…

Moon on imdb.com

Moon on Rotten Tomatoes

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38 Comments

  1. Kaylia_Marie pursuaded me to go see this movie with her film club. I loved it.

    I agree with your general assesment, and I thought that it had well-earned its place in the long line of exceptional science fiction stories (whether film, literary, radio, television, etc.). The story was ultimately about the concepts that carried it along (the nature of identity, the extent to which we will go to pursue energy policy, the difficulties of human colonization/occupation of another planet, etc.), and pulled the ironic but pleasant trick of making you think about the concepts by feeling for the character.

    Bit o’ trivia: I heard an interview with the director, and it turns out that he is the son of none other than David Bowie. Insert your own Flight of the Concords “Bowie in Space” joke.

  2. I saw Moon last weekend, and thought it was great. While you could nit-pick that the ideas in the movie have been covered before in science fiction (the trailer immediately brought Algis Budrys’s novel “Rogue Moon” to mind when I first saw it), the film was a very well done dramatization of some great classic SF ideas.

    There’s a good interview with Duncan Jones (aka Zowie Bowie) at NPR’s Science Friday this week: http://www.sciencefriday.com/program/archives/200907245

    Jones cites some SF classics from the 70s and 80s as major influences, and it shows in the film — but that doesn’t mean it’s ripping anyone off.

  3. @mandydax: Ack! I didn’t think of that. I hope others stop at the warning like you did, if they don’t want spoilers.

    @tarrkid: Yes, I actually cut my review in half because I had outlined the entire plot to hit all the discussion points, and it was too much. But the end definitely left me wondering what would happen to Sam #2…

  4. @ Tarrkid: One of the touches I loved was the audio montage at the end of the film, with different news stories regarding Sam’s appearance on Earth. The fact that it ended with a Rush Limbaugh-esque talk show host who wanted to ignore what the company was doing and just put Sam in prison was, I thought, a little to close to the truth.

  5. I loved this movie – this shows that a science-fiction movie doesn’t have to be a two-hour explosion.

    My only quibble at all was the Earth-level gravity in the base. The movie was a fairly low-budget film, so I can see that they’d have to leave the bounding for just some scenes. Other than that, though, no problems here.

  6. I need to see it again. I thought the radio chatter at the end was just random stuff, but my wife caught that it was all relevant. Nice touch. I also liked how Gerty’s vocal patterns evoked memories of HAL-9000, but was definitely NOT HAL.

  7. I agree about Gerty, in fact

    *** SPOILER ALERT ***

    Gerty was so effectively evocative of HAL 9000 that when he actually began to help rather than harm Sam, I was genuinely surprised. If this was intentionally, it was a brilliant piece of work by the film makers.

  8. You forgot to mention that the product design was just outstanding, and the soundtrack, too (Clint Mansell who also composed the scores for Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, and every other Aronofsky film).

    The little homages formed a fun egg hunt for the die hard film fanatics, like me, but they were twisted in a way that made those little touches actually part of the film. It already started with the on screen text detailing the location of the base: I expected it to say Nostromo or something. Same style.

    The science is pretty solid, too, for a film. I mean, yes, clones like that are highly unlikely, but it’s by far way better than the blatant disregards for the laws of physics we saw in the latest, awful Star Trek flick. Gerty was a believable robot, the mining harvesters and the rovers looked plausible, and so on.

    And the film was actually propelled by the characters. The plot twist comes in early and still you want to see how the film ends. And although the film dealt with corporate greed and potential inhuman extremes deeds out of capitalism, it does not preach a certain political ideology at all. It purely sticks with the character(s).

    (Blatant plug alert! My thoughts on Moon can be found here)

  9. It’s actually pretty funny, in an otherwise comedy-free film, and isn’t as cheesy as it sounds.

    There are a lot of good, subtle jokes in the background. Check the names of the four mining rovers — and what they changed the name of the malfunctioning Unit 3 to!

    My only quibble at all was the Earth-level gravity in the base.

    There were a few minor scientific errors. Earth gravity in the base; stars in the lunar sky; dust billowing up from the truck wheels, instead of shooting out balistically; and a couple of others. On the standard SF film scale of science gaffes, those are extremely trivial!

  10. You forgot to mention that the product design was just outstanding

    Really good work for a budget of $5 million. On big blockbuster productions, that’s the cost of five day’s shooting.

    The plot twist comes in early and still you want to see how the film ends.

    I figured out the twist from the trailer, but it didn’t spoil the film at all.

  11. re: Gravity

    I decided they didn’t mess with showing it in the base because it was irrelevant. My wife decided there was some unspoken method by which they had overcome it, which was also irrelevant to the story. But, of course, in the moonwalk scenes, there is apparent low gravity, so maybe my wife is right…. Again….

  12. I loved the movie… I heard some people say it moved too slow, but in my book it was just right. I also loved the stroy and the whole me, myself, thing.

    You asked: If you met yourself, would you like you?

    Here’s the thing, Sam 2 met Sam 1 but by that point because Sam 1 had been there alone for 3 years he was not the same Sam as Sam 2… so even though they started off the same, thier expierences had already made them really differnt. Which, I loved.

    I wished the moment of clone uprising had been a but further out in the future… as in it was his grandaughter not his daughter on the screen or something, but ont he whole I really loved this movie.

  13. I found someone else who has read ‘Rogue Moon’! My life is complete.

    I read it ages ago, back when I was 12 or so. My father taught it in his university SF literature course, actually — though it was a rather minor part of the curriculum — and encouraged me to go through everything on his study’s bookshelves.

    As soon as I saw Sam Bell carrying the other space-suited figure in the trailer, I thought Rogue Moon.

  14. @anthroslug:

    One of the touches I loved was the audio montage at the end of the film, with different news stories regarding Sam’s appearance on Earth.

    I recognized the Rush Limbaugh-esque voice, but couldn’t make out any of the dialogue in the montage. Has anyone transcribed it anywhere?

  15. @Dax:

    The little homages formed a fun egg hunt for the die hard film fanatics, like me, but they were twisted in a way that made those little touches actually part of the film.

    Have they been listed anywhere?

  16. @pciszek:

    I recognized the Rush Limbaugh-esque voice, but couldn’t make out any of the dialogue in the montage. Has anyone transcribed it anywhere?

    I haven’t seen it transcribed, but the gist of it was that the executives of Lunar Industries were facing trial for crimes against humanity because of their unethical use of clones. The Rush voice was trying to impugn the clone’s testimony.

  17. @pciszek
    RE: homages. Not that I know of, but they’re not real easter eggs. Just specific shot, small lines, etc

    RE: end montage. The last guy pretty much declares Sam to be an illegal Alien, which was quite a hoot on par with “they’re stealing our jerbs“.

  18. @Stacey: Exactly! the direction was great too… one sam was pale, the other not… and the evolution of Sam’s anger was great. (Sam 1 had had three years to deal with his anger, Sam 2 didn’t so he was just automatically angry.)

    Awesome.

  19. I too, must issue my hearty approval. I felt like we could have done with more shock upon realizing there was a second “him” wandering around, but perhaps that was not so shocking at the arbitrary future date in question.

    I thought Gerty was excellent just in the ways he wasn’t Data or HAL. His total dedication to Sam’s well-being and his simultaneous complete participation in the whole sick plot was both touching and creepy as all hell.

    Also, someone mentioned non-ballistic dust- maybe I was being charitable, but I thought it was behaving properly. Hmmm….I guess I’ll just have to see it again.

  20. @Aristothenes:

    I felt like we could have done with more shock upon realizing there was a second “him” wandering around, but perhaps that was not so shocking at the arbitrary future date in question.

    The speed at which one of the Sams (I can’t remember which) went to “So, you’re a clone” suggests that clones are somewhat common. I wonder what the social rules are around them in that world?

    Also, someone mentioned non-ballistic dust- maybe I was being charitable, but I thought it was behaving properly.

    That was me. I made a special point of checking: in some of the scenes, you can see the dust swirling around as the wheels kicked it up. It actually would move ballisticly — you need air for it to swirl.

    Compare http://history.nasa.gov/40thann/mpeg/ap16_rover.mpg

  21. @those who have commented on odd scientific issues (ballistic dust, gravity, etc.) – I wondered many of the same things, and, like yourselves, finally just figured that things like the dust were minor oversights, and the gravity must be a technological advance that didn’t come up because it wasn’t relevant to the immediate plot. I remember the guys over at the old (now defunct) “Oh the Humanity!” movie review site saying something to the effect of “you know that you’re enjoying a movie when you start finding inconsistencies, and rather than worry about them you make up excuses in your own mind.” Sort of like we’re doing, so I guess we all dug the film.

    @pciszek: As the previous commentor said, it was essentially a guy saying something to the effect of “he’s either a liar or an illegal alien, and should be imprisoned!”

  22. I found the film to be very well made (especially when considering the budget) and I found the existential questions fascinating. I can’t fault the film for thematic quality, which is great. Likewise, Sam Rockwell does a fantastic job here. Kevin Spacey was good as gerty, though I think I might have been a bit too aware that I was listening to, you know, Kevin Spacey. I wonder if it would have been more effective with a no-name actor in that role. Again, well made film, good questions, good acting, good direction, and it makes you think.

    But am I the only one who thinks the entire premise is rather dumb? When I first started watching I had two major questions, only one of which was half answered: First, why was there only one man at this station? Second, why were there _any_ people at the station at all? From what we see of his job in the film, it’s not very complicated. He monitors the harvesters and when they’re full, he goes out and picks up the cannisters and sends them back to earth. That’s pretty much it. It seems like it would be a lot easier to create an automated system rather than devising a nefarious cloning scheme in secret (also, where did those hundreds of clones come from? How are they being kept alive? etc…).

    But ok, let’s say some sort of human presence is needed – why only one person? Cabin fever is a pretty well established idea, even with groups of people, let alone a single person in deep isolation. The movie has half an answer for that one. Clearly the company doesn’t care about the wellbeing of the clones, so that part kinda makes sense. However, Sam is ostensibly an astronaut and hence somewhat intelligent. Why wouldn’t he question this?

    As a SF fan, I’m willing to take what I can get, but still. I don’t think this measures up with the likes of 2001:p

  23. I loved the movie too. It feels like ages since I’ve seen a movie attempt to do real SF and do it well. And I found myself loving the drama so much that I was happy to make excuses for the scientific errors. (On the other hand, considering the sophistication of the automation available on the Moon base, it’s hard for me to understand why they’d need clones at all.)

    @Aristothenes — I also kept expecting to see Gerty turn evil, and I was very happy when that didn’t happen. When Sam#1 started to become really sick, I was convinced at first that Gerty was slowly poisoning him as a simple way to dispose of a malfunctioning clone.

  24. @mciocco: Most of those objections can be hand-waved with the idea that the company worked out that having a single expendable person (with clones) is cheaper than the alternatives. Gerty wasn’t that complex a robot, nor were the mining drones, so it’s easy to imagine that there are some servicing tasks that they need a human for (probably not the cannister retrieval; that may just be there to give Sam something to do between the difficult jobs).

    There were a few places where I was thinking, “If I were an evil corporation bent on exploiting clones in this way, I would have designed that differently” — but nothing too bad.

    I don’t think anyone’s claiming that it’s better than 2001 — but it is still a pretty good little SF film, especially for a first-time director.

  25. I read the post and thought I’d demonstrate my killer old SF cred by noting the indebtedness to Rogue Moon, but two people beat me to it! It does sound like a great film, and I’ll have to make it a point to check it out.

  26. @JHGRedekop:
    I’m going to drop a bomb here by saying that 2001 is overrated as a film. The cinematography and effects are the best, evah, but the story is not fleshed out well, rather strangely presented, and the ending feels like a rushed job (and is rather unexplained).

    It’s certainly one of the greatest films ever, yes… but the story? That could have used some work.

    I’d say that Moon is on par with that other classic, Silent Running.

  27. Just saw it last night after reading about it here. I agree it was very good acting, directing, special effects, etc. Also I loved the fact that I was expecting a twist ending, but there wasn’t one. That in itself is sort of a twist.

    One thing I don’t understand is why the company would be so evil as to create this huge cloning operation, but install a robot intelligence in the base capable of compromising the entire operation. Gerty tells Sam the whole truth about the operation (not at first, I’ll admit), and inputs the password to the video logs for him.

    It just seems inconsistent that the Big Evil Company would program the robot in such a way.

  28. @jtradke:

    One thing I don’t understand is why the company would be so evil as to create this huge cloning operation, but install a robot intelligence in the base capable of compromising the entire operation.

    Speaking as a software developer, I didn’t find it that unreasonable. If Lunar Industries failed to foresee the eventuality of, say, two clones being awake at the same time, they would not have programmed Gerty with any contingency plans for that eventuality. As Gerty himself says, his programming is to help Sam through to the end of his tour of duty — that overrode other considerations.

    I think the movie did a good job early on of showing Gerty as conflicted (in a way) in his refusal to answer direct questions about he situation — no doubt he was programmed not to tell the clones that they are clones. But in the end the “help Sam achieve his goals” subroutine won out.

  29. I finally got to see it last night. Very pleased.

    The only quibbles I had were technical ones. I can forgive the base gravity thing, since it’d be difficult to shoot the entire movie simulating 1/6 gravity. The dust clouds, though, are another thing. I’m assuming the harvester shots are CGI (didn’t look like miniatures), in which case, someone had to go out of their way to program it to look wrong. It would’ve been easier to do ballistic effects than swirling.

    Everything else, though, was great.

  30. @Steve: Actually, the exterior shots are all miniatures. They had a large model Moon set made, and pulled the vehicles across the surface using fishing line.

    I don’t know how the dust clouds were added, if they were CGI or more traditional compositing. From the interviews I’ve heard and red, I suspect it was a more traditional approach. Remember, Jones only had $5 million to work with, which is a very small amount for a feature film.

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