Have you ever wanted to be that guy? No…not that guy…this guy.
You’re on the long stretch. There’s two weeks left on your three year contract. Thoughts of your wife and the baby daughter you only know through videos pervade your every moment. Just two more weeks and you’ll get to hold them in your arms. A less meticulous man might be prone to superstition, but you go about you’re work with the zeal of a rookie trying to impress the bosses. If day twenty and day one thousand eighty are treated exactly the same, what could possibly go wrong?
Or, perhaps, you would prefer this guy. You’re a hothead with a disdain for surprises, yet, here you are, exactly where you’re supposed to be, but with only a vague impression about how you got there. Your one coworker lacks that forthcoming quality you require in your subordinates and keeps getting in the way of you doing the job. You’re forced to use the guile that got you that three year contract to get out through the rabbit hole and see what needs doing. You find the guy you replaced, broken and near death. Why is he still here? He’s supposed to be long gone! Why are there so many surprises on my first day!
It is a false choice. You are both. Your name is Sam Bell and you work on the moon. It is concurrently your first day and nearly your last. You were not supposed to know this or your true nature. You are a clone. You and your predecessors have been monitoring the harvest of helium from the lunar surface and shipping it to Earth where it is used as a source of clean energy. For the three years of your existence, you pine for the wife and child of your DNA source. You wake up in the infirmary as the man he was when he arrived on the job, the hothead with a marriage on the brink, and grow into a better man over three years of solitude. Life looks pretty fine by the time you climb into your cryotube for the trip home. It is then you are exterminated, and a new Sam Bell is awakened.
These are the logistics of Moon, directed by Duncan Jones. The film is a love letter to the science fiction genre wrapped in an aesthetic of 2001: A Space Odyssey. With its antiseptic bulkheads and foreboding airlocks, the moon base recalls a grounded Discovery One, including an ode to the most famous appliance on that ship, HAL-9000. But, GURNEY is no HAL. It is programmed to help Sam and never falters in that task. It has formed a bond with generations of Sams and, as voiced by Kevin Spacey, seems happy to attempt to change the fate of one of the clones it has known. Where HAL became homicidal, GURNEY is always there to offer a password to a confidential file or mend a wounded hand. Instead of a burning, cyclopian red lens, GURNEY offers emoticons on its monitor. This appropriation of prior genius serves Jones well in the design of the film, as well as thematically.
The exploitation of artificial life is hallowed ground in science fiction cinema. To tread there is to walk with Ridley Scott and Blade Runner, yet there walks Moon, unselfconsciously. Sam Bell could easily be an early model of the Scott’s replicants. Like their charismatic leader, Roy Batty, the younger Sam Bell clone certainly understands that he is being abused for economic expedience. Clones are cheap labor, unwittingly working for free. They have no lawful rights. They can’t complain about treatment. They are fictitious in every way, manufactured down to their memories.
But, both films examine the effects of self-awareness on a manufactured man once the cloud of inauthenticity is lifted. Sam Rockwell plays both Sam Bells as individual characters rapidly dealing with their new reality. The older Bell nurtures the newer, training him in ping pong and the building of the model contributed to by every Sam Bell, a replica of the hometown in their shared memory. He tries to be a calming influence with mixed results, initially. The younger Bell is angrier, caring little for the life lessons and wisdom the man he may become imparts. He tears the station apart, looking for the evidence that will confirm everything. Denial persists, but only briefly. They cannot contest the fact of each other’s existence and the exact memories they share of life on earth prior to their fictitious arrival on the base. The younger Sam wants to escape, but he quickly matures as the older model, burdened by the hopelessness of the love he worked so hard to maintain, slowly expires.
Strangely enough, there is a sense in the film that earth has not turned into a dystopia. Few glimpses of life there are offered, but little has changed from what we see. The film opens with a commercial for Lunar Industries that explains how clean energy has bettered the world. It is no different than a present day commercial for the energy industry. Healthy, attractive adults and children frolic in clean, green meadows. There is a sense that the entire population has become First World. Later, when Sam makes his escape home, voiceovers from media outlets offer a flash forward to the months to come. He has blown the whistle on LI and clone labor. The voices express outrage at the practice as if it’s the 1990’s and a Nike sweatshop has just been discovered. Sam’s act of rebellion is valued. He is protected, in stark contrast to Blade Runner, where he would have been destroyed on sight.
Moon does well to maintain the pedigree of the films it emulates while advancing the cause of the science fiction art film. Essentially, it’s a one man show where Rockwell conveys two halves of his character brilliantly. It is a quiet rumination about loneliness, identity, love, and hope waiting to be discovered. It is a rare and precious element in a genre too often bloated by the like of Avatar.