DC Day 1-Stormwatch

The Warren Ellis run on Stormwatch was the first long term run on a series that I genuinely connected with. The idea of a UN-controlled superhuman crisis intervention team was always an attractive one but under Ellis the book became something tighter, more mature than it had been before. Ellis wrote Stormwatch officers as humans, people with ideals and agendas and flaws all struggling against a job which often seemed designed to stop them doing any real good in the world. That constant struggle, between what was right and what was necessary ultimately spawned the sequel book, The Authority, and indirectly changed the visual and intellectual grammar of Western superhero comics for most of the following decade.

 

For me though, Stormwatch was always a more attractive concept than The Authority. Stormwatch were mortals, normal people with abnormal abilities trying to do their best and often failing. They were human as well as superhuman and that humanity was one of the book’s most important elements. It’s also one of the elements that Paul Cornell’s relaunch of the book keeps in place.

 

Cornell reimagines Stormwatch as something closer to the Knights Templar, an organisation that has existed for centuries and which has tasked itself with protecting the Earth from superhuman and supernatural threats. Cornell cleverly weaves his other book, Demon Knights, into the background, establishing them as an early iteration of Stormwatch and in doing so neatly moving the book into territory closer to Jonathan Hickman’s excellent Marvel series SHIELD, than Ellis’ previous run on Stormwatch.

 

This historical context also provides a broader canvas for Cornell, and he clearly relishes exploring the idea of Stormwatch being something closer to a monastic order than a small fire team of soldiers. Adam One, one of the new characters is a good example of this. An immortal strategic advisor, Adam is equal parts priest and general, a man who has advised world leaders but can’t quite remember some of their names. History but with the corners knocked off, superhumans who were suits to work instead of capes. Stormwatch was always a curiously English type of superhuman comic and under Cornell’s reign that only looks like it’s increasing. He’s aided no end by Miguel Sepulveda’s clean, rounded, expressive art.

 

The first issue does a neat job of exploring what Stormwatch does in this new iteration, as one team is sent to Moscow to try and recruit a new member, a second is dispatched to investigate a mysterious artifact and, alone on the moon, Harry Tanner discovers something impossible just as something impossible discovers him. If the book has a weakness it’s that it tries to do too much in one issue as Cornell introduces established characters, a modified status quo and newcomers at the same time as moving three linked plotlines along. They all work, and will no doubt all dovetail but all three could benefit from a little bit of extra space. Harry Tanner, the splendidly named Eminence of Blades, in particular is a fascinating character in a difficult situation and I could have stood to read a lot more of him. I suspect, as the series goes on, we will.

 

Interestingly, this minor reservation actually gives the book a different feel. There’s a real sense of Stormwatch being a global organisation dealing with global threats and the fact that each of the missions presented here is equally important drives home how impossible their job is. Stormwatch are the line between us and chaos and the line as it’s presented here, is stretched pretty thinly, even with the addition of DC mainstay the Martian Manhunter and newcomers like Harry and Adam One.

 

Stormwatch feels idfferent to every other book in the launch. There’s a cautious altruism to the way the characters are presented, a desire to do the right thing even though they may not be thanked for it, that’s tempered with the pragmatism of working in the military. That’s ultimately the glue that holds the book together, through three plot lines, moments of gleeful pop culture invention and the combination of two universes’ worth of characters; the greater good. Stormwatch have been reimagined as the guardians of humanity and I can’t think of anyone better suited to the job.

 

From The Earth to the Moon: Apollo 1

The Apollo 1 fire still haunts NASA, its shadow cast over the entire history of American manned spaceflight, coloring accident investigation, astronaut safety, engineering, every element of the process. Manned spaceflight has lots of ghosts, and whilst Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White weren’t the first, they have stayed at the banquet for decades and show no signs of leaving

Three men inside the capsule, four men outside. Graham Yost’s script focusses on Harrison Storms, the head of North American Aviation’s Apollo Program, Joseph Shea, his opposite number at NASA, Deke Slayton, the Head of the Astronaut Program and Frank Borman, the astronaut detailed to the investigation. Grissom, Chaffee and White are present too, of course, but in black and white flashbacks, matinee idols with chiselled jaws and gentle, total self-belief.

James Rebhorn is an actor best known for playing adversarial figures of authority and superficially, that’s what he plays here. Storms is an arrogant, confrontational figure, attacking the relationship with NASA and Shea in particular rather than accepting his own role in the tragedy. At first glance, he gives every indication of being the villain of the piece but no one is allowed to be something as comfortable as just the villain of the piece here. The moment where we see Storms, from a distance, weeping with grief at what’s happened, is one of the most affecting in the entire series as is the point where Storms goes into battle for the jobs of his colleagues and himself only to be told that’s not what this is about, and it never was. It’s about Grissom, Chaffee and White. Four men outside the capsule, three men in.

Kevin Pollack, as Joe Shea, plays to his past work the same way Rebhorn does, and, like Rebhorn, is given the opportunity to subvert that. Pollack is both a gifted character actor and a professional stand-up comedian and his combination of reservation, reticence and barely contained energy lights up every scene he’s in, especially his confrontations with Rebhorn. Shea was a famously bullish figure, a man who rode North American Aviation mercilessly and Pollack brings not only that, but a quiet intelligence to the role. Shea and Slayton were, at one point, supposed to toss a coin to see which of them sat in the capsule during the test and the fact neither of them were in there haunts both men. For Slayton, it’s a failure to care for the men under him but for Shea, it’s a chance to save lives, an opportunity that passes so close to him he can feel it. If NASA is haunted by Grissom, Chaffee and White, Shea is haunted by the ghost of what he could have done, what he feels he should have done.

Frank Borman, played by David Andrews, is, superficially, the least important of the four. He’s the astronaut on the investigative committee but in the light of the Apollo 1 fire, the astronaut corps are clearly portrayed as lesser, fragile, mortal. Andrews is a thoughtful, considered actor and those qualities mesh perfectly with Yost’s writing, portraying Borman as a quiet, centred man, an academic in an aviator’s buzzcut. Yet it’s Borman who holds the power as the Senate Enquiry into the accident begins. His friends are dead, because engineers made a mistake and there’s a perception that Borman may have an axe to grind. In fact, there’s a perception that Borman deserves to attack the program.

Borman’s testimony is as stereotypical as it is fascinating. He starts off as a typical military pilot, tight, controlled posture, precise language but when he’s asked about the astronauts, the men, not the mission, he lights up. Andrews’ posture shifts, his voice changes, he becomes more relaxed, more open. There’s still the formality that comes from military training, the consideration that comes from the unique combination of scientist and soldier that an astronaut needs to be, but suddenly, Grissom, Chaffee and White are in the room, still dead but somehow closer, more real which makes the second half of Borman’s testimony all the harder to listen to. He transitions from recollections of his friends and colleagues to a passionate defence, using Grissom’s own words, of the program to a dispassionate, intellectual description of their deaths. Not because he doesn’t care, he does, that much is certain, but because the reasons why they died are as important, as defining as their deaths. Borman’s message is as clear as it is unsaid; We got it wrong, all of us, let us get it right, for Gus, Ed and Roger.

A quarter inch to the left or the right tonally and the episode would collapse under the weight of Borman effectively talking the project back into life. Instead, through Andrews’ quiet, controlled performance and Yost’s writing, this becomes a hinge around which history turns. The program starts again, the men are remembered, the mission continues.

The episode begins and ends with Deke Slayton, the Chief Astronaut. Played by Nick Searcy, Slayton was one of the most fascinating figures in modern spaceflight, a Mercury project astronaut grounded after one flight, and seemingly forever, by a heart condition. He became the head of the Astronaut Corps and Searcy plays him as a quiet, almost reticent figure. He’s somewhere between everyone’s father and older brother, an unusual combination of a man both broken and defined by his place, halfway between the launchpad and the boardroom. Just as Slayton was the connective tissue between multiple incarnations of the space program, Searcy is the connective tissue between each episode of the series, each level of the bureaucracy, from the NASA hierarchy to the astronauts’ families and he’s rarely better than he is here.

As the episode opens we see Slayton in Mission Control, and, as it closes, we see him visit the wives of the dead crew who give him a present from their husbands; an astronaut pin. Like Borman’s testimony it’s a moment which is a quarter step away from crass emotional manipulation but here, the writing, directing and performance meshes to create something extraordinary. Throughout the episode, the flashbacks to the fire are shown in black and white. In the final seconds, that changes as we see Slayton looking at the capsule as Grissom turns, nods to him and smiles. The physical, practical and spiritual combine, the burden of grief and blame and guilt is lifted just a little. As the episode closes, as Grissom moves back into colour and prepares for a very different kind of launch, the message is as clear as it is unspoken; time to go back to work. The man spearheading that return, Commander Wally Schirra, is the focus of the next episode.

Apollo 1

The Apollo 1 fire still haunts NASA, its shadow cast over the entire history of American manned spaceflight, coloring accident investigation, astronaut safety, engineering, every element of the process. Manned spaceflight has lots of ghosts, and whilst Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White weren’t the first, they have stayed at the banquet for decades and show no signs of leaving

Three men inside the capsule, four men outside. Graham Yost’s script focusses on Harrison Storms, the head of North American Aviation’s Apollo Program, Joseph Shea, his opposite number at NASA, Deke Slayton, the Head of the Astronaut Program and Frank Borman, the astronaut detailed to the investigation. Grissom, Chaffee and White are present too, of course, but in black and white flashbacks, matinee idols with chiselled jaws and gentle, total self-belief.

James Rebhorn is an actor best known for playing adversarial figures of authority and superficially, that’s what he plays here. Storms is an arrogant, confrontational figure, attacking the relationship with NASA and Shea in particular rather than accepting his own role in the tragedy. At first glance, he gives every indication of being the villain of the piece but no one is allowed to be something as comfortable as just the villain of the piece here. The moment where we see Storms, from a distance, weeping with grief at what’s happened, is one of the most affecting in the entire series as is the point where Storms goes into battle for the jobs of his colleagues and himself only to be told that’s not what this is about, and it never was. It’s about Grissom, Chaffee and White. Four men outside the capsule, three men in.

Kevin Pollack, as Joe Shea, plays to his past work the same way Rebhorn does, and, like Rebhorn, is given the opportunity to subvert that. Pollack is both a gifted character actor and a professional stand-up comedian and his combination of reservation, reticence and barely contained energy lights up every scene he’s in, especially his confrontations with Rebhorn. Shea was a famously bullish figure, a man who rode North American Aviation mercilessly and Pollack brings not only that, but a quiet intelligence to the role. Shea and Slayton were, at one point, supposed to toss a coin to see which of them sat in the capsule during the test and the fact neither of them were in there haunts both men. For Slayton, it’s a failure to care for the men under him but for Shea, it’s a chance to save lives, an opportunity that passes so close to him he can feel it. If NASA is haunted by Grissom, Chaffee and White, Shea is haunted by the ghost of what he could have done, what he feels he should have done.

Frank Borman, played by David Andrews, is, superficially, the least important of the four. He’s the astronaut on the investigative committee but in the light of the Apollo 1 fire, the astronaut corps are clearly portrayed as lesser, fragile, mortal. Andrews is a thoughtful, considered actor and those qualities mesh perfectly with Yost’s writing, portraying Borman as a quiet, centred man, an academic in an aviator’s buzzcut. Yet it’s Borman who holds the power as the Senate Enquiry into the accident begins. His friends are dead, because engineers made a mistake and there’s a perception that Borman may have an axe to grind. In fact, there’s a perception that Borman deserves to attack the program.

Borman’s testimony is as stereotypical as it is fascinating. He starts off as a typical military pilot, tight, controlled posture, precise language but when he’s asked about the astronauts, the men, not the mission, he lights up. Andrews’ posture shifts, his voice changes, he becomes more relaxed, more open. There’s still the formality that comes from military training, the consideration that comes from the unique combination of scientist and soldier that an astronaut needs to be, but suddenly, Grissom, Chaffee and White are in the room, still dead but somehow closer, more real which makes the second half of Borman’s testimony all the harder to listen to. He transitions from recollections of his friends and colleagues to a passionate defence, using Grissom’s own words, of the program to a dispassionate, intellectual description of their deaths. Not because he doesn’t care, he does, that much is certain, but because the reasons why they died are as important, as defining as their deaths. Borman’s message is as clear as it is unsaid; We got it wrong, all of us, let us get it right, for Gus, Ed and Roger.

A quarter inch to the left or the right tonally and the episode would collapse under the weight of Borman effectively talking the project back into life. Instead, through Andrews’ quiet, controlled performance and Yost’s writing, this becomes a hinge around which history turns. The program starts again, the men are remembered, the mission continues.

The episode begins and ends with Deke Slayton, the Chief Astronaut. Played by Nick Searcy, Slayton was one of the most fascinating figures in modern spaceflight, a Mercury project astronaut grounded after one flight, and seemingly forever, by a heart condition. He became the head of the Astronaut Corps and Searcy plays him as a quiet, almost reticent figure. He’s somewhere between everyone’s father and older brother, an unusual combination of a man both broken and defined by his place, halfway between the launchpad and the boardroom. Just as Slayton was the connective tissue between multiple incarnations of the space program, Searcy is the connective tissue between each episode of the series, each level of the bureaucracy, from the NASA hierarchy to the astronauts’ families and he’s rarely better than he is here.

As the episode opens we see Slayton in Mission Control, and, as it closes, we see him visit the wives of the dead crew who give him a present from their husbands; an astronaut pin. Like Borman’s testimony it’s a moment which is a quarter step away from crass emotional manipulation but here, the writing, directing and performance meshes to create something extraordinary. Throughout the episode, the flashbacks to the fire are shown in black and white. In the final seconds, that changes as we see Slayton looking at the capsule as Grissom turns, nods to him and smiles. The physical, practical and spiritual combine, the burden of grief and blame and guilt is lifted just a little. As the episode closes, as Grissom moves back into colour and prepares for a very different kind of launch, the message is as clear as it is unspoken; time to go back to work.   The man leading that return, the commander of the first manned Apollo mission to reach space, would be Walter ‘Wally’ Schirra, a veteran astronaut and the focus of the next episode.

From The Earth to the Moon Episode One: Can We Do This?

The history of manned spaceflight is defined by inconceivable scale and fragility. Hundreds of thousands of miles, hundreds of thousands of pounds of thrust, millions of hours spent designing, testing, flying, all for a small group of desperately human, utterly fragile people who would travel higher and further than anyone ever had before. A unique combination of desire and courage, design and persistence. The knight class of society put in flight suits and fired out of the atmosphere on top of the largest rockets ever developed and nowhere is this combination more evident, more compelling, than in the Apollo program.

Ron Howard and Tom Hanks’ mini-series, From The Earth to the Moon attempts to place this unscalable, inconceivably huge project in historical and personal context. The thirteen episodes explore the project in its entirety, from the initial announcement through the frantic scrabble to be ready, the loss of the Apollo 1 mission and, crucially, past Apollo 11 and the first man on the moon. This is not just a series about Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, it’s a series about what happened to place them at the tip of history and what it was like to be the people who followed them.

Sitting at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, it’s tempting to buy into the conspiracy theories that the moon landings never took place. As I write, the space shuttle program is about to be shut down, its replacement is several years away and whilst NASA have, again, announced a plan to return to the moon, there’s little chance of it happening in the immediate future. There are interesting developments, to be sure, and I’ll be looking at the Hundred Year SpaceShip program soon, but the moon is so far away, so distant, the Apollo project such a distant memory that it’s passing into modern myth. Tikur Bekmambetov, director of the Nightwatch movies, is currently producing Apollo 18, a found-footage horror movie about the ‘real’ last manned mission to the moon with the tagline:

THERE’S A REASON WE NEVER WENT BACK.

But why did we go in the first place? That’s what this first episode sets out to explore and does so in a clever, even elegant way. The project is inconcevably vast, inconceivably ambitious and instead of trying to look at it from a particular viewpoint, this first episode embraces that scale, embraces that moment of abject shock as the project is announced and asks the titular question;

Can we do this?

That question falls squarely on the shoulders of James Webb, played by Dan Lauria. As Russia gets the first man into space, and then the first space walk, it’s Webb who is put under continual pressure to try and get the Americans ahead of the game and that pressure, that need, is written all over Lauria’s perpetually hangdog face. The Americans were systematically out manouvered for much of the history of early spaceflight and the episode neatly contrasts the flight of Yuri Gagarin and the first space walk, conducted by Alexi Leonov, with scenes of worried men in suits trying to work out where they went wrong. The Russians are in flight, the Americans, it seems, are still trying to work out how to get off the ground.

That process begins with the Mercury and Gemini projects and culminates in Kennedy’s famous announcement, which is also part of the series’ opening credits. It’s a beautifully played moment as we see Webb and his colleagues react to the speech. There’s a long pause and then Webb asks who wants his job. His colleagues laugh and after a moment’s conversation, Webb again asks who wants his job and this time, no one laughs. Ten years to get an American on the moon. Ten years to get from pressurised cannisters lobbed over the horizon and back again to a world wide net work of communications and sensors and technology, designed from scratch, that could transport three people to the moon and back again. Needless to say, no one volunteers to take his job, and slowly, the impossible is rendered down to the merely all but impossible. Goals are defined, engineering contracts are developed, design work begins and the next step is defined; Gemini. Two men where Mercury was one, a chance to get more astronauts in orbit, more experience and begin achieving the seemingly endless list of objectives needed for a moon shot.

All of which begins in a hotel in Houston, where a man called Max Peck checks in over and over and over again. It’s a moment of quiet, slightly desperate comedy, as the new astronauts all check in under the same code name but the scene also carries a resonance that echoes through the rest of the project and the series. These men are all unique and all the same, each part of the mission but none more important than the others. Max Peck will walk on the moon and each of them is Max Peck.

But not all Max Pecks are created equal, something which becomes clear as the new astronauts make their way out into the country to help raise the profile and funds of the project. At one particular fund raiser, astronaut Elliot See is greeted with polite enthusiasm by some and barely contained derision by others, because unlike several of his colleagues, he hasn’t flown yet. An astronaut isn’t an astronaut unless he’s been above the atmosphere, unless he’s pitted his fragile humanity against inconceivable scale, inconceivable distance. This idea, that the astronaut corps are defined by their work rather than their personality, is something that continues to haunt the American space program and is explored throughout the series, most notably in episode two, Apollo 1, and episode 3 We Have Cleared The Tower.

Matched with this need to build a reputation is the brutally simple fact that everything about the project is dangerous. The very real human costs of the project form the focus of Apollo 1 but they’re foreshadowed here, through See and Ed White, the first American to walk in space. See never flew, killed in a plane crash, whilst Ed White’s space walk was one of the defining moments of American space travel and is presented here as the moment the program really gained momentum. One of the final scenes of the episode is White, sitting astride his Gemini capsule as it orbits the Earth, pointing, just for a moment, at the moon. It’s a beautiful, complex image, evoking Doctor Strangelove as much as the heroic ideal of the Astronaut, the pressure-suited knight riding a steed built by hundreds of people towards glory. Arrogance and persistence, hard work and vision, cinema and history combine in a moment which is iconic, complicated and tragic.

It’s revealing that the episode doesn’t finish with this but rather with a group of astronauts being informed that they will be the staff for the Apollo project, that one of them will walk on the moon. Once again, there’s the idea of scale vs individuality, of one historical moment that any of them could carry. This scene answers the question at the top of the episode, definitively and with absolute confidence; we can do this, we will do this and one of these men will be the one to do it. Max Peck is going to the moon, but as episode two shows, the price of getting there is far higher than anyone in the project realises.

Magnificent Desolation: Moon

MoonThe Apollo program died the moment Neil Armstrong’s flickery cathode ghost touched down on the moon’s safe and uttered one of the most famous phrases in human history. Everything that followed him, from the genial charm of Al Bean’s Apollo 12 crew to the ‘successful failure’ of Apollo 13 and the arrival of Harrison Schmitt, the only scientist in history to walk on the moon on Apollo 17, was an afterthought, an also ran, second place. The moon had been reached and it was summed up perfectly by Armstrong’s pilot, Buzz Aldrin; magnificent desolation.

Moon, written by Duncan Jones and Nathan Parker and directed by Jones takes this vague disappointment and makes it the centre of the film. The story cleverly places our satellite in the last position it can appear new; as somewhere remote, dangerous, but ultimately mundane. A workplace with spacesuits, a mine face populated by robots. This moon is busy, certainly, but still empty, still desolate, but no longer devoid of human presence.
The story follows Sam Bell, played by Sam Rockwell. Sam is the token human presence at Sarang Moonbase, serving a three year term where his biggest responsibility is to periodically empty the Helium 3 tanks of the robotic harvesters he looks after and ship the gas back to Earth. Sarang is the front line of modern science, instrumental in keeping Helium 3 as the number one, ecologically sound, clean fuel used on Earth. Sam’s job is equal parts janitor and astronaut, frontiersman and manual labour and the paycheque more than makes up for the three years of his life spent in alone.
Sam, as we first meet him, is as well adjusted to his job as he can be. He keeps a botanical garden using old food boxes as planters, is constructing a precise scale model of his hometown, works out regularly and lives for the video messages from his wife. With two weeks to go he’s a serene, placid figure whose one concern is his growing health problems. He’s beginning to hallucinate and whilst he can still do his job, he’s becoming very aware that something is wrong. Matters come to a head when he sees a woman walking, suitless, on the lunar surface. The ensuing accident cripples his rover and leaves him badly injured.
Sam wakes up in the infirmary. He’s told by the base AI, GERTY, that he had an accident, was able to get back to Sarang but appears to have suffered minor brain damage. GERTY runs some tests, makes sure he stays in bed and leaves him be.

But Sam Bell, the second time we meet him, is a different man. He’s concerned, agitated, curious. He gets out of bed early and hears what sounds like GERTY talking to Earth, except the live satellite link has been down for weeks. He can’t remember making sections of the town model and when he notices that one of the Harvesters has been immobilised, is hugely frustrated to be told he can’t go out to fix it. Filled with nervous energy and seemingly unharmed from his accident, Sam fakes an atmosphere breach and leaves the station.

In the airlock, there’s an empty hangar where a spacesuit should be.

When he reaches the Harvester, there’s a rover trapped under its treads.

In the rover is a man with Sam Bell’s face.

Sam Bell is a placid, calm man who sees things that aren’t there and has only two weeks left to serve. Sam Bell is a nervous, energetic, angry man who is two weeks into a three year contract. Both think they’re the real Sam. Both want answers. Both are being lied to.

The genius of Jones’ film is that the desolation that Buzz Aldrinr esponded to is not only present but lies at the heart of both versions of Sam. The banality of their existence is not only a comfort but, it’s revealed over the course of the film, a positive influence on both of them. The younger Sam is driven to the point of obsession, angry, bad with people and on the verge of losing his wife. He’s barely able to keep still where the older Sam is barely able to move, lacking the benefit of three years of monastic life at Sarang.
The older Sam has the tranquillity but lacks the drive. He’s a man who has done nothing but look himself in the face for three years and as the film progresses, he’s the one who becomes strong enough to confront the very personal aspects of the situation. Young Sam is concerned with where he’s going, whether he’s real, whether he’ll get back to Earth. Older Sam is concerned with where they’ve been, happy to find out whether they’re real and able to deal with the truth far better than young Sam. One of the film’s finest, most poignant moments comes from this and is, appropriately, an absence. Old Sam makes contact not only with Earth but with the daughter that he has spent three years watching grow up, only to find her a fifteen year old young woman. Rockwell’s face is a master class of silent, complex acting as he struggles to deal with not only this information but his own voice, off shot, asking who’s on the phone.

Neither of them are real. Neither of them are first. Neither of them are important.

This is the information he keeps from young Sam, recognising that the younger version of himself needs the anger, the energy, the absence of knowledge in order to get where he needs to be. It’s a sin of kindness as well as one of omission and it gives the ending a bittersweet tone it desperately needs.

Rockwell’s work as the two versions of Sam Bell is extraordinary, there’s really no other way to describe it. The slightly distant serenity of older Sam is present in every element of the character from his over long hair and the physical damage he takes to the moment he receives a message from his wife. Rockwell is completely focussed on the screen, living for a woman who is a quarter of a million miles away and, unknown to him, fifteen years ago. A lesser actor would have played this Sam as child like or senile but in Rockwell’s hands he’s a gentle, smart man who is coming to the end of his life and coming to an acceptance of that.
The younger Sam, in stark contrast, is a character wrapped in an elaborate joke. Spending much of the film in his Lunar Industries jumpsuit and aviator sunglasses he’s every inch the hero astronaut, complete with close cropped hair and constant, desperate need to find out more. He’s energetic where older Sam is tranquil, tensed where older Sam is relaxed. He has potential but no peace and it’s that which ultimately gives him the tools he needs to get to the end of the story.
In essence, Rockwell is playing one man as both father and son and the honesty with which he does it is affecting without ever seeming mawkish. These men have the same memories, the same experiences but an entirely different outlook and the script is at its best when it demonstrates that. Young Sam’s initial plan, to wake a third clone and kill him so one of them can escape unnoticed to Earth and the other can serve out his term is shot down by his older compatriot not because it won’t work, but because they don’t kill. It’s a simple moment of absolute knowledge, a remarkable piece of scriptwriting where a character is in essence having an externalised moral discussion with themselves and again it’s one of the film’s best scenes. By the end of the film, Sam has been given that rarest of gifts; knowledge not only of where he’s going but what he’ll be like when he gets there and finishes the story as a combination of his two incarnations; a young man with the energy and anger to deal with his new life tempered by experience, self knowledge and compassion.

Were the film just a conversation between two incarnations of Rockwell it would be impressive. However, Kevin Spacey as the voice of GERTY provides a fascinating counterpoint for the character. A blocky, functional computer that can move around Sarang on a ceiling rail, GERTY looks like HAL from 2001 redesigned by the NASA of the 1980s. The only sop to human contact is a small screen where he communicates using a variety of smiley faces.
Once again, the genius of the film lies in this minimalism, as GERTY communicates a complex series of emotions through less than ten still images. Spacey’s warm, expressive voice gives the AI a strength which varies from intimidating to comical and finally remarkably human. When faced with the knowledge that Sam has met himself, GERTY asks whether he might be imagining things and at times appears to view Sam as an asset of the company and nothing more. A lesser film would have used this to make GERTY an adversary but he’s anything but, instead acting as a soldered Ariel, a figure who observes everything and helps Sam not because he wants to, but because he’s programmed to.
Even there though, the film leaves room for doubt. GERTY’s willingness to help could also be read as guilt or dissatisfaction over presiding over the murder of the previous Sams. His final action, offering Sam his reset switches to ensure no record of the events at Sarang will survive is again open to interpretation; on one hand it’s the final act of an AI who is programmed to help its human colleague first and protect their employer second. On the other, it’s a form of voluntary lobotomy, perhaps even the end GERTY has been working towards, a final binary absolution.

The film’s minimalist nature allows Rockwell and Spacey to drill down to the essence of their characters and also allows Jones and Parker to place it in the rarified atmosphere between contemporary science fiction and cyberpunk. Sarang is a resolutely functional base and even Sam’s personal effects seem dated and worn, his small bunk, stainless steel shower and battered chair owing as much to Red Dwarf as they do to Alien. This is the world of tomorrow in its most mundane sense, a future which is almost exactly like the presence in every way.
But this minimalism also means the few hints of the outside world stand out far more than normal. Dominique McElligott and Kaya Scodelario as Sam’s wife and daughter offer hints of an outside world that is as enticing as it is unreachable whilst the excellent Matt Berry and Benedict Wong give Lunar Industries an utterly convincing passive aggressive face as Overmyers and Thompson, the two executives in charge of the operation.
It also means that the film becomes a metatextual piece, the themes of cloning, isolation and corporate espionage applicable both to its own universe and others. It’s almost impossible to not view Sam as an early Replicant, an industrial genetic android with a short lifespan and a single job to do. Like Roy Batty, Sam wants more life but unlike the antagonist and, arguably, hero of Blade Runner, he gets that life without any blood on his hands. Likewise, the three man ‘rescue squad’ dispatched to the moon to help repair Sam’s Harvester could easily be viewed as a Blade Runner division kept on permenant retainer.
Much like Sam, the more the viewer digs, the more questions are raised. Is every base on the moon run by a version of Sam Bell? Was the original Sam complicit? How many times has this happened before? How many other people have been cloned?

The film answers none of these questions and is stronger for that. In fact, it’s single misstep comes in the closing credits as voice over news reports tell us that the young Sam made it to Earth and that Lunar Industries are being indicted for crimes against humanity. It’s an unnecessary complication to an almost inconceivably elegant, exploration of one man’s life played out against a landscape that is both defined and released by two words; magnificent desolation.