Magnificent Desolation: Moon

The 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.

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4 comments

  1. Excellent review, I adored this movie. Any chance of there being an Autopsy made of this on Pseudopod?

  2. Excellent review, which made me appreciate the movie more than I originally had, indeed I was somewhat disappointed in this film after reading much hype and expecting to enjoy it deeply.

    However, I am surprised at your interpretation of the ending, and in specific your omission of what I thought was the strongest point of the entire film – the radio caller stating something to the effect of “he is either a nutacase or an illegal alien – in either case he should be locked up or deported”. I thought this presented one of the most ultimate truths and connections to our own human conditions, and to me was the most compelling point of the entire film.

  3. Alasdair, I enjoyed reading your insightful review almost as much as I enjoyed this brilliant, touching, deeply disturbing film. Duncan Jones, Nathan Parker and Sam Rockwell deserve Oscars.

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