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Ground Control to Major Sam

Moon, Dir. Duncan Jones

Moon, Duncan Jones’s aka “Zowie Bowie’s” (David Bowie’s firstborn) directorial debut is an impressive one. Impressive in talent, style, and plot, Moon proves perfectly minimalist, a compelling sci-fi story touching on not only the future of the earth’s energy supply, but also the moral issues concerning artificial intelligence.

He hath but scarcely known himself. © Sony Pictures Classics.
He hath but scarcely known himself. © Sony Pictures Classics.

Sam Rockwell is Sam Bell, an astronaut miner harvesting Helium 3, a gas that holds the key to reversing the Earth’s energy crisis. Sam is in the last two weeks of his three year contract with Lunar Industries, and his only companion on the Selene Moon base is Gerty (Kevin Spacey), a mobile computer that provides him with medical attention, moral support, and an everlasting supply of Flowbee haircuts.

The film begins with a shot of Rockwell on a treadmill in silence, then pans over slowly as Sam spritzes his beloved plants, all of which have names. He works painstakingly on a model of Fairfield, Connecticut, his hometown, surrounded by snapshots of his beautiful wife Tess (Dominique McElligott), and his young daughter Eve. The score is quiet, and there is always the perpetual hum of space, seclusion. Moon is evocative of Tarkovsky’s Solaris at times; the sterile white sets, long, fluorescent halls, and the aura of total isolation.

As Sam fills a glass with hot water, he sees a luminous, pale brunette in a yellow dress staring at him, and scalds his hand. As Gerty dresses his burn, he asks Sam what happened. Sam tells him he was distracted by the TV, to which Gerty remarks, “ Are you sure you didn’t see something?” There are several moments early in the film that suggest something strange is a’brew. As Sam watches a live video feed from Tess, it jumps as if it’s been edited. While he is on the computer working, flashes of a more haggard version of himself appear onscreen for a millisecond. It is impossible to know if Sam is dreaming or hallucinating, and the subtle yet progressive editing and consistency in style underscore the confusion.

Moon’s refreshingly free of special effects. The set is realistic, and the moon rovers have the same muddy gray hue as my brother’s old Star Wars collectibles. The unearthly environment proves a perfect stage for high ratio lighting and dramatic noir-esque shadows. As Sam enters a rover, the camera is at a low angle inside, and a backlit circle beautifully frames his silhouette. On a trip to repair one of the machines, Sam again hallucinates the brunette, and crashes his rover. He awakens in the infirmary weak and sedated, and Gerty calmly explains the accident. Though the live feed to earth is supposedly down, a groggy Sam overhears Gerty having a live conversation with Lunar Industry employees. Sam, prohibited from leaving the station, convinces Gerty to let him check something, and to his awe He discovers an unconscious person identical to himself.

What makes Moon compelling is, yes, it’s science fiction, yet also not an impossibility. Scientists today consider helium 3 to be a safe, environmentally friendly candidate for the future as a replacement for fossil fuels, and supposedly one single space shuttle load of the gas is enough to power the entire United States for one year. In 2024, NASA plans to have a moon base, as well as China, India, Europe, and Russia’s Energia. Ouyang Ziyuan, the chief scientist of China’s lunar program has commented, “Whoever first conquers the moon will benefit first.” Cloning and its attendant moral issues are arguments already in progress.

Though Spacey is irreplaceable as the voice of Gerty, Moon is Rockwell’s one-man show. As the injured Sam (Sam 1) awakens he discovers a man who looks exactly like him (Sam 2) standing by his bed. Gerty is distraught; the Sams want to know what the fuck is going on, but Gerty’s vague and elusive. Sam 1 assumes Sam 2 is a clone, and pities him as he goes to watch a video message from Tess. Rockwell successfully portrays two different people, yet both are Sam. They have the same memories, same features, but reflect different aspects of Sam Bell’s personality. Sam 2 is curt and temperamental, while Sam 1 is gentle and tolerant. In the two Sams human duality is exhibited. Sam 1 is scruffy, in dirty long underwear, a more sensitive version, and Sam 2 is neatly trimmed, and more abrasive. The progression of their relationship is gripping, they fight, Sam 2 flips over Sam 1’s model—and then finally, after confronting Gerty, Sam 1 understands that he is a clone as well. It is like watching the interior of a human mind unravel; the only information they have is what has been programmed, memory implants from the original Sam, and they cling to those programs because the programs are their soul.

They refer to “our” daughter, and make remarks like, “Tess was right about your temper” like two family members. Other than these memories, they have no identity, yet they feel if they are both suddenly orphaned. They bond, and Rockwell is at his best. As the two Sams slowly accept their fate, they team up and make a series of discoveries, including a hidden underground room containing a shocking secret. Gerty goes against all reason and helps them as they search further, which suggests that—as in 2001: A Space Odyssey—computers can develop a conscience.

Moon seems a fitting debut for Jones, even if his childhood dream was to be a pro wrestler. One can’t forget David Bowie in Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 The Man Who Fell to Earth and Jones’s college thesis was “How to Kill Your Computer Friend: An investigation of the Mind/Body Problem and How it Relates to the Hypothetical Creation of a Thinking Machine.” Duncan later left the PhD program at Vanderbilt to attend film school in London, and the rest is history.

Moon is about human identity, how incredibly vital and primal the need for self-awareness remains. Sam’s final words to Gerty are “We’re not programmed, we’re people, understand?” No, but I’d like to.


Mary Hanlon


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2009

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