July 20, 1969 – the day man first landed on the moon. Since then, this lunar being has been more than the constant orbiting companion of the Earth for the past, known light-years. It is the unsuspecting, intergalactic neighbor that welcomed one of man’s greatest achievements. With the burgeoning understanding of the satellite, its celestial presence soon transcended to the world of pop culture where it has become a recurring muse of science fiction – from cinematic dramatizations of extraterrestrial escapades to astronomic backdrops of the imagination’s limit. When modern filmmakers have trespassed fictitious planets and have hopscotched galaxies through wormholes, visiting the moon seemed like the easiest and most basic route. But the covered distance and elaborate fantasy are no guarantee for a worthwhile exospheric exploit. Man and moon have nurtured a scientific yet surreal recognition of each other’s existence that such relationship is the heart of Duncan Jones’s sublime and strikingly soulful first feature film, MOON.
2035 – The year when Earth, due to an oil crisis, relies on alternative fuel (Helium-3) imported from the moon. Astronaut Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is the sole operator and resident of Lunar Industries’ automated lunar facility that caters to the planet’s energy demands. A committed but desolate employee who spends his nearly three-year stay on the satellite performing monotonous routines, Sam has been very much looking forward to be reunited with his family. But his last days of isolation were jinxed by troubling hallucinations that threaten his already-forlorn sanity, only to be debunked by the shattering truth. (Warning: Spoilers are coming).
What was then an immersion to the lonely lunar life became a subversive, dramatic confrontation of reality that no technological advancement can resolve in favor of its lead(s). Released four years before Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, MOON is an incandescent one-man play rooted on Sam’s recognition of his humanity, regardless of his biological composition. Before the game-changing incident, the audience can grasp the weight of Sam’s loneliness as he count down the days of his return to Earth. But what could be more devastating than knowing that you are not who you think you are? That the memories you cling as the motivation to live throughout the secluded period are not actually yours? One may think that Sam’s prolonged physical remoteness invites psychological tremors but the detection of delusions and doppelgangers revealed to be much more complex and challenging, especially to everything he believed in. It turns out, he is not one but one of the many… clones.
Keeping himself in shape and sane.
Before MOON rotates on ethical conspiracy as its slow-burning theme, it is essentially a delicate dissection of man at his most vulnerable solitary state. Expecting to regain normalcy after his shift in space, Sam inopportunely uncovers his real biology that revaluates his purpose of living. He doesn’t have any family or an established life to return to. Worse, his synthetic mortality is endangered after discovering the other clone (I pertain to them as Sam I, the accident-ridden, sickly, and more emotional clone, and Sam II, the steely and levelheaded newer clone.) Both eventually disassociate themselves from their programmed identity and plan to flee from Lunar Industries’ unethical measures. It is uncertain if the original Sam is aware that he was cloned as part of his employment contract. But seeing the world (or more specifically the moon) through the clones’ eyes establishes a deeper attachment to these blameless characters who are under the leash of the laws of science, not nature. MOON reinforces one of the controversial debates on genetic procreation through the consequences dealt by the clones. But what is ethical (that Sam I and II were deprived) has a corresponding emotional blow that this British sci-fi drama uniquely showcases and fundamentally supported by its lonesome setting.
Sam Rockwell as the Sam-s.
Normally a nocturnal lux of mystery, the moon is stripped of the intrigue and anonymity in Jones’ onscreen treatment. It is bare, rocky and remote that triggers a claustrophobic sensation. But most importantly, the moon’s physical location and Sam’s condition is the film’s natural simile. Sam’s loneliness as he yearns for human contact is the overwhelming gravity that anchors the viewers’ emotional investment to him; the split of his character into two lead clones only compounded the feeling. Tapping the beguiling lead star that he can be, Rockwell is excellent yet criminally underrated where he confronts the existential crisis of his two clone roles. He doesn’t only spar against himself but also with GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), an artificial intelligence which is surprisingly the film’s moral compass. It’s a marvel to see Rockwell lose his usual cool and audacity, and rebound from disbelief to acceptance after developing a dangerous curiosity that led to the devastating truth. But the sadness still prevails and stings when Sam I and II learn that their presumed identities make them no one. A video call to Earth confirmed their immaterial existence to the people who they longed to be reunited with, and to the company who can easily dispose them once they become a liability. A sad reality they grapple with, but whatever their origin is doesn’t make them less human. They plan to continue living their preordained existence. And the first step is, to escape from the moon.
The moon is only a rock after all.
With only one actor but brimming of scientific and personal themes at the core of its metaphoric setting, MOON is a spectacular sight to behold to. Almost every cinematic element is in sync in crafting the factual and abstract features of the moon. The location is aesthetically isolated but altruistically intimate on Sam’s state of mind. Its poignant score heightens the emotional impact of Rockwell’s somber scenes. The minimalist production design inside the lunar facility evokes cageyness and caution, while the external shots of Sam maneuvering the craters of the moon are devoid of wonder; instead, are made acquainted to the bleak surrounding, ramrod infrastructure and heavy (oxygen-less) atmosphere, all simmering of paranoia.
Thought-provoking on its ambitious concepts and thoughtful on its value for life, MOON is a rare space drama among the galaxy of its overrated contemporaries. No other sci-fi is as poetic and potent as Duncan’s film that is relatively smaller in production scale (before moving on to Source Code). But more than Rockwell’s luminous acting vehicle, the silver screen portrayal of the moon is revealing, both in an accurate and allegoric fashion. Deeply profound and remarkably heartfelt, MOON sees the satellite on a different light…
How disarmingly perceptive it is.