When we think of space, we often think of grandeur.
We think of a new frontier of unexplored dark. We think of the Hubble Deep Field and the infiniteness and peace of space time. Even our stars and planets, often referred to as celestial bodies with their almost-holy names, evoke a sense of divinity and ever-presence.
However, in just 97 minutes, Moon overturns that notion.
Set on a lunar energy base on the far side of the moon, Duncan Jones’ 2009 film paints us a different image of how we think about space, and the relationship we have with it. Set in a future not too far from our own, Moon evokes themes of loneliness, ethics, and identity.
In the wake of a post-energy crisis Earth, the moon has become the Earth’s newest source for clean energy. The plot follows a young man named Sam Bell working a solitary job as a helium-3 harvester for Lunar Industries on a base called ‘Sarang’ on the far side of the moon. It is revealed that Sam has been up there for three years and is slowly losing his mind as he approaches the end of his contract. Lonely and missing his wife and infant daughter, they remain his only motivation to push through his last two weeks on the moon. However, following a mining accident, Sam loses consciousness for a few days and is woken up by his only companion, an AI robot named Gerty 3000.
It is revealed later after Sam breaks out of the base and explores the moon himself that the Sam that woke up from the accident is merely a clone of the recently deceased Sam, who remains still in the wreckage of the accident. Through misjudgement, then through mutual understanding, both Sams learn about their origins, the secrets behind Lunar Industries, and what it means to be human.
The beauty of this film lies in its simplicity and lack of more recent additions to the genre of science fiction. Fancy lasers, anti-gravity action sequences, and aliens do not make their way into the film, making space seem more eerily close to reality rather than the farfetched.
Many of our preconceived notions of space in the filmic universe have their roots in 20th century film theory. Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey has played a massive role in establishing genre tropes in science fiction film. The usage of majestic, classical scoring, large wide shots, artificial intelligence are only some of many tropes that Kubrick’s film had cemented in our perceptions of science fiction.
For example, it is in Kubrick’s portrayal of the evil, rogue AI system (HAL 9000), mirrored time and time again in popular films such as The Matrix (1999), I Robot (2004) and Wall-E (2008) that make us wary, and almost afraid of Gerty 3000. The smiley face animation on his screen is adorable and innocent, but I can’t shake off the feeling that something is up. If anything, it is the fact that Gerty is a loyal companion to Sam and lets him escape at the end that surprises us most. Jones’ manipulation of this genre trope is what drives the story forward more than an action sequence would.
Scoring also plays a large part in Moon. A lot of this usage of score to highlight emptiness, fear, and loneliness (although technically, sound doesn’t travel in space!) has its roots in 2001: A Space Odyssey’s usage of classical score in wide, establishing shots of the planet and the universe. If it wasn’t already awe-inspiring enough that space is so darn large, the hollow deep tones of an orchestral score further amplify the sheer emptiness and grandness of space. Clint Mansell’s score may not embody the same atmosphere as traditional classical pieces (eg. In the Hall of the Mountain King by Edvard Grieg), his eerie, hollow music evokes a sense of loneliness more than anything.
However, I feel that the impact of this film goes far beyond filmic technique, but rather in its exploration of the ethics of cloning. When both Sams discover the secret vault of Sam clones in hibernation, and after accessing a live feed back to Earth and talking to a teenage version of his daughter, they both deduce that the original Sam has been on earth for years, and that Lunar Industries has been cloning Sam in order to reduce the cost of sending more astronauts to Sarang.
The clones in Moon follows a popular thread of science-fiction theory that humans are essentially “blank slates” and can have memories, emotions, and consciousnesses “uploaded” into their systems (reminiscent of the “tabula rasa” in Roman philosophy). This meant that to treat the clones as “disposables” simply could not work anymore, as they become more human than machine. The cloning system was supposed to work perfectly until one of the Sams broke the cycle and revived one of the clones that was supposed to be left to die. Similar to Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, the humanity of clones and other genetically engineered people gets pulled into the question. When do we draw the line between man and machine? These questions are sure to become more relevant as technology advances and many of our goods and services move towards automation.
Another theme that is lightly touched upon is loneliness. Although Sam’s situation is a little extreme (he is literally removed from all of mankind to work on the moon), Jones uses this to depict an the negative impacts of technological dependency and isolation in our society today. Sam eventually goes crazy, and is eternally grateful when he finally finds another human companion. In turn, the humanity of the clones is revealed, as they too feel “cabin fever” and a restlessness from a lack of human companionship. In this case, dependence on technology is painted as negative, and warns us that human connection is just as, if not more important than interacting with technology.
To say that science fiction cannot accurately illustrate problems facing humanity today is a gross misunderstanding of the nature of the genre. Fiction has always been used as a vehicle for effective storytelling, playing out many of our world’s issues on a new backdrop. Besides, for what better reason would there be to set a story out in the vastness of space, if there wasn’t something so profoundly large to say about the world we inhabit in today?