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In the near future, the energy releasing isotope helium-3 is being mined from the moon as replacement for the earth’s exhausted oil supply. LUNAR Industries ltd. controls the operation and houses one man every three years to work at the lunar facility. They monitor the operation, do repairs, and keep records. Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is nearing his completion date and is eager to return to his wife and young daughter. His only companion during his stay is an advanced artificial intelligence named GERTY, who moves about the station suspended on a ceiling rail system. GERTY assists in all automated base functions and is able to speak fluently with Sam. Recently, Sam has been feeling differently, distracted, and occasionally even hallucinating.
A communications beacon has prevented direct contact with earth for an extended period, making only recorded messages feasible. Now, one of the helium-3 harvesters is sending a signal that it is malfunctioning. Sam takes the rover to investigate. Nearing the enormous machine, Sam sees a young woman in the dust cloud and swerves, violently colliding with the unit. He wakes up in the station infirmary and discovers he is not alone. There is a man standing in the doorway. He looks disturbingly familiar. Something is not right.
Moon is a daunting work, basically a one-man show tapping into themes of isolation, betrayal, trust, and loss. Ostensibly sci-fi, Moon takes its time to reveal the dark side of greed and denial. Deliberately paced, moody and superbly acted, this is an experience unlike most.
Scene Setup: As the scene begins, Sam has been recuperating in the medical unit from the accident, but doesn’t seem to be improving. If anything, he seems to be deteriorating. He has many questions but isn’t getting answers.
Why it Matters: Notice as Sam walks to the rec room and sees the other man exercising, he does not engage him. Instead, he goes to GERTY. Despite GERTY being a robot, it is the only connection Sam has had for three years. It has provided for him. nurtured him. Mothered him. GERTY even says, “I’m here to keep you safe.” Listen as Sam questions the robot, his voice broken, almost childlike. Notice too that GERTY, while for most of the film has been mobile, moving openly about the station, it is now literally backed against a wall. What does that tell us?
More: What is it to have everything you accept about yourself and the world you live in be, in an instant, proven entirely wrong? Who are we if we lose every credible thread of reality attached to our being? Moon explores this and themes of loneliness, setting up a conflict between two clones who share the same body, same ambitions, and same memories living on the far side of the moon. Given this, can their be any room for individuality?
Actor Sam Rockwell has mostly been very successful in supporting roles and yet here he shows he can be effective as the lead. He’s simply mesmerizing in the dual parts. Writer / director Duncan Jones creates an utterly believable world in the confines of the lunar station, giving us time to absorb the details of Sam’s manipulated existence. We are allowed to share in the discovery of the terrible secrets beneath the station and wonder, given the same circumstance, about our own choices. In our featured That Moment In, the discovery is just beginning.
Okay, quick show of hands – who here has ever been alone? We’re not talking about that time you got stood up for a drink at Starbucks, or when you had nothing to do on a Friday night and stayed in to watch a rom-com with a pint of double-chunk ice cream (yeah, okay, so we occasionally don’t get out like we used to). Some of you are probably touting that time you went for a hike by yourself and some may have even sailed alone on the open sea. Well good for you. But Sam Bell has you beat.
This is isolation. Not only is he on the moon, he on the far side. Ain’t nobody gonna see him, and as we learn, this is probably by design because no lunar observing fan is probably going to like seeing visible strip mining through telescopes. LUNAR Industries Inc. makes sure that won’t be a problem.
There is a lot to talk about, but the best place to start is with GERTY. It’s like the elephant in the room. That talks. Like Kevin Spacey. And let’s get that out of the way. We’re huge fans of Kesyer Soze, er, Verbal Kint. Mr. Spacey has done some fine work and his voice is now instantly recognizable, which, in a film like this, has unfortunate effects. GERTY, by just being the robot in a sci-fi film has the audience questioning loyalty, and that might be why Spacey was cast, but it is distracting. Slightly.
Either way, GERTY pays respects to HAL-9000. It sees with an all knowing round eye (though it is white here) and talks in a flat calming voice, expressing emotions with simple emoticons on a small front-facing monitor. Duncan Jones readily admits to the homage:
“We could have either completely ignored that or we could have … accepted that people are going to make that connection and then sort of take their expectation and take it in a very different direction,”
We are naturally suspect of GERTY, yet it seems very much trusted by Sam, who has playfully put a “kick me” Post-it note on its back. This isn’t all that hard to believe. We as a species build attachments to inanimate objects, and studies have shown how loneliness can lead to anthropomorphizing objects, like Chuck Noland and Wilson. What’s more interesting is how GERTY responds. Does it think the Sam clones are human? We don’t think so. Its job is to wake them up, keep them healthy and dispose of them when they are obsolete. This is evident in the clip.
Sam: “Who’s the guy in the rec room.”
GERTY: “Sam Bell.”
Sam: “Come on, come on, come on.”
GERTY: “You are Sam Bell.”
You are Sam Bell. GERTY doesn’t distinguish between the two. It’s irrelevant. Its only purpose is to do whatever it needs to ensure LUNAR Industries Ltd. keeps operating on the moon. There is usually one Same Bell; now there are two. Take care of them both. As mentioned, it is curious however that when confronted about the identity of the Sam Bell in the rec room, GERTY is docked against the wall. There are certainly any number of responsibilities GERTY attends to every day. It is seen moving about the station performing myriad tasks and updating Sam on the condition of the base. Now it is immobile, tucked in shadow, unable to give the answers Sam wants. Does it have a sense of conflict? Its been programmed to see to every need and answer for everything that occurs on the base and provide for each clone. How advanced is GERTY? At a critical moment, GERTY reveals the truth to Sam about the project. Its voice is neutral yet there is a hint of remorse perhaps we as the audience attach. On the tiny monitor, the emoticon frowns and eventually sheds an animated tear. Its large mechanical arm, with three nimble articulating fingers moves and gently touches Sam’s shoulder, which he does not shy from.
We are in a strange state. Sam is shattered and it’s difficult to watch him learn of his fate, and GERTY is offering him the only comfort the clone has every truly known. Is it real? Has GERTY done this before? We suspect so. And there is a very subtle clue that might offer more evidence. In the beginning of the film we see an aluminum wall in the bathroom area with 156 (yes, we counted) ink drawn smiley faces of different emotions, including one entirely blank. We see it a second time (in a different configuration) after the second Sam arrives (His he now drawing them?). Are these Sam’s emotions? Sam’s feelings about GERTY? A countdown to some event? Then, later as Sam leaves GERTY after learning he is a clone, he heads back to the wall, which is now entirely clean (by GERTY or the new SAM?), though we can still see faded faces embedded into the grain of the alloy. GERTY is witness to a three-year cycle of the same behavior, no matter if the Sam learns it is a clone or not. Which is more isolated, the clone or GERTY?
Sam Rockwell is the star but one of the main characters is the lunar base. It is called SARANG, followed by the Korean characters 사랑. The station is wonderfully designed, looking like a series of snap-together modules that allows for expansion. It is well lived in and offers a lot of areas for Sam to separate his life, with rooms for exercise, relaxing, eating, etc. It has a long-lived in feel, and it not the sterile white environment we have come to expect from these types of films. It is cluttered and more importantly, scuffed and dirty. The moon is layered with dust, and it is everywhere. GERTY is filthy. Even the spacesuits and clothing are soiled.
Let’s talk about the clothes. Is there something familiar about Sam’s jumpsuit? Or the Hawaiian shirt and jacket? Yes, there is. Anyone see Ridley Scott’s Alien? Of course you have. Both of these figure prominently in each film. But jumpsuits aren’t uncommon in flight and space films. And no doubt the flowered shirt was more of an homage to Alien than anything else. But something else caught our eye. Mostly because we’re nerdy. If you like sc-fi, then you’ve seen Silent Running, and perhaps you remember Freeman Lowell in his blue jumpsuit. How about the insignia on the lapel? Sam wears the same on his shoulder. We’re guessing this is a subtle homage, but anyone want to submit a theory?
Question: Why is the first Sam we meet falling apart? The accident caused little damage as he appears mostly unharmed on the infirmary table, save for a minor cut above one eye. Yet he steadily declines from there, bleeding, losing teeth, sweating and convulsing. He is dying. But why? The clones might have a built-in expiry date, which could be for any number of reasons, including having to save reprogramming GERTY for every new employee that arrives. More likely it is radiation, which on the moon, under prolonged exposure, would be devastating. Has LUNAR Industries Ltd. found that it’s cheaper to produce clones than it is to build a base that protects its employees, which ironically would need to be underground . . . where the clones are stored. All this raises a question not asked in the film: What is the public interest in who is manning the operation of a resource that supplies more than 70% of the power to earth? Is LUNAR Industries Ltd. leading a huge public relations lie that has convinced people that there is something different on the far side of the moon? The only hint that this might be true is the very clever last lines of the movie, which reveal in only a few lines of dialogue heard through a radio transmission the evolving fate of the Sam and perhaps the company that produced him. It says everything about power and influence and perhaps comments on our knack for blindly following that influence in order to maintain the comfortable life provided for us. Dark and intriguing.
Let’s just get back to the Korean for a second. It is obvious South Korea has at least helped finance this operation. There is a very brief shot of two people on earth giving directions to GERTY. One appears to be Asian. But either way, as Sam begins to learn about the fate of the clones (it’s bad), he triggers a message from a computer program that is meant to calm the “person” going home as they enter a cryogenic tube that is meant to allow them to travel back to earth. We’ll let you discover what that process is all about and concentrate only on what the man says. After assuring the departing employee that they have done a great job, he speaks a mix of Korean and English: “안녕히 계세요” – (anyeonghee-gaysey-yo) and Good bye.”
Fortunately, we know the Korean language very well and speak it regularly. To those unfamiliar with the language, the man on the monitor appears to be wishing the traveler a safe farewell, and in English he is, but in Korean he is using the honorific expression, “Stay peacefully” which is said to a person when he or she is staying and the speaker is leaving – opposite of what is happening. If the person is leaving and the speaker is staying, the expression is similar in sound (안녕히 가세요 – anyeonghee-ga-say-yo), and means “Go peacefully.” See the difference? Subtle but very important. And what does that say about the clone and the “cryogenic tube”? He ain’t going nowhere, and another subtle hint for viewers.
This movie inspires a lot of conversation for us. We purposefully chose not to talk about perhaps the most powerful moment in the film, which occurs toward the end and involves re-establishing moon-to-earth live contact. It is a tremendously moving scene and should be discovered by the viewer and not by a spoiler website.
Duncan Jones’ directorial debut is nothing short of a masterpiece with an excellent performance by its star. Clint Mansell’s lovely score sets the morose and lonely mood with simple piano and strings. Enjoy the opening track:
Director: Duncan Jones
Writers: Duncan Jones (story), Nathan Parker
Stars: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey, Dominique McElligott
Language: English, Korean