[As usual, this spoiler-laden review is written with the assumption that most people reading it have already seen the movie. Moon is out on DVD and Blu-ray.]
To start with a conclusion, Moon is a good science fiction movie that some people will like quite a lot. It’s an ‘indie’ film (an independent), meaning that it was not made by a major studio and it didn’t have the budget associated with the marquee blockbuster science fiction movies. It’s mentioned, along with District 9 [SciTechStory Review], as the kind of science fiction major studios no longer make. I’m not sure Hollywood ever made many of this kind of science fiction – realistic, idea oriented, and not necessarily intended to be big box office.
Moon (an unadorned but ill-fitting title), is about Sam Bell, the only human being working a Helium-3 mining station on the dark side of the Moon. His three year contract is almost over, and he’s falling apart. He has a near-fatal accident, which precipitates most of the story. In keeping with the Spartan atmosphere of the movie, here are a few bare bone points:
Moon is science fiction for adults. No slimy aliens. No warp speed. No pyrotechnics. There is blood, as in a bloody mess of injury, illness and a punch in the nose. Otherwise Moon is content to present its story without appealing to hoary sci-fi conventions or the sensibilities of the action-is-everything set.
While it’s not true that a science fiction story with ideas is automatically for adults (think Star Trek TV episodes), Moon explores situations and concepts that are not very accessible for the immature. Loneliness, isolation, crushing routine, confronting oneself (in this case in a novel way), the ending of one’s life; this is not the stuff of rock-em-sock-em science fiction. Then there is the idea of cloning. Cloning is something most people have heard about. None of us have had to confront it. Confronting one’s clone is the core of the movie. It generates some sparks, emotional and intellectual. (Caveats below in ‘Science Spoilers’)
At times, the pace of the movie is almost elegiac. Slow. Reportedly this was on purpose, to depict the mood and circumstances of a man living his routine alone for three years. This is not to say Moon puts the audience to sleep. It’s visually active, as should be expected from a director, Duncan Jones, whose day job was making commercials. However, there are stretches where the visuals dominate the activity of the story – that’s when the pacing slows. Some people will not like it.
Compared to most successful science fiction, Moon was made on a shoestring, a paltry 5 million dollars or so. Give it an award for resourcefulness with minimum resources. It doesn’t look or feel like a cheap movie. However, as inordinately proud as its makers should be about achieving so much with so little, the small budget probably had a cost. The near obsession with making the technical aspects of the film work (no money to throw at problems) may have stolen time and attention from exploiting the contours of the story. There are issues, moments of could-be drama, character points, which are either missed or just plain flat. Not enough to ruin the film by any means, but despite its professional presentation values the story may fail to engage people very deeply.
Sam Rockwell’s brilliant performance as Sam Bell (more precisely performances) represents something of a tour-de-force in overcoming the technical difficulties of portraying two clones in the same scenes. He’s good enough to wonder why wasn’t he nominated for an Academy Award? In reality, the Academy people believe a priori that science fiction and great acting is an oxymoron. Then too the performance is just a bit technical, a tad too correct. The Academy tends to reward highly expressive if slightly sloppy acting. Sam Rockwell’s impeccably nuanced and utterly believable clones may leave some people unmoved.
I just noticed that each of the above points begins with praise and ends with a negative. I think that reflects my personal reaction. I recognize that Moon is a well made, interesting and watchable movie. It’s a major achievement compared to many contemporary science fiction movies. I wish there were a dozen sci-fi films of this caliber every year. Yet I can hardly say I’ll be watching it repeatedly. It doesn’t have that kind of depth.
Why that is so, for me, is a result of the director and writer, Duncan Jones and Nathan Parker, artificially rigging too many scenes and paying more attention to technical issues rather than getting all they could out of the dramatic situation. In short, like the visuals of the lunar surface and the artificial surfaces of the station, Moon leaves me a little cold.
Compared to many, or most, science fiction stories, Moon is diligent in presenting scientific realism and is believably accurate. In the jargon of the genre, it’s ‘hard science fiction.’ That means, loosely, it cares about a scientific realistic depiction. However, this is a narrative – a story – and its effectiveness doesn’t depend on accuracy. This is as true of science fiction as it is of politics.
It can be safely said that any science fiction story made into a movie will by box-office necessity play more or less fast and loose with scientific realism. Moon is no exception, despite its ‘hard science’ intentions. Here are some examples:
As anyone who googles Helium-3 will discover, it’s true that it is potentially a fuel source for atomic fusion. Atomic fusion isn’t science fiction, although nobody really knows if it will become a reality as a controlled source of energy, or when it might become commercially practical. Mining Helium-3 from the regolith (dust) of the Moon is a fairly old story in science fiction work. Note: It’s science fiction. The amount of 3He on the Moon is truly tiny and vast quantities of regolith would have to be processed under unimaginable conditions. Driving the huge rigs depicted in the movie over real Moon territory is – unlikely. As said, it’s science fiction but plausible.
Why bother having one human being operate the base? If humans are needed at all, why not a small team? Where are the other robots (besides the Hal junior known as GERTY)? Why would a human being have to go out on the lunar surface to retrieve filled canisters of 3He? Could you think of other ways the stuff could be brought back to the base? Quite a few things in Moon happen because the script needed something for a dramatic scene – like the accident that injures Sam 1.
The movie depends on the shock – the audience’s and the character’s shock – discovery of clones. It’s a little too obvious for unobtrusive story telling: Clone confronting clone is so conveniently dramatic. The conceit depends on the clones exploring unknown territory, as if in the society of the time (whatever time that is) clones are unexpected. In all likelihood clones and all the moral, ethical, and practical hoo-ha that goes with them would be a well worn subject in a society that has the capability of using clones as industrial commodities. It’s important for the sense of fresh discovery that the clones in the movie have no clue about the issues surrounding clones. Personally, I think this contributes to a shallow treatment of what is, after all, the main driver of the story.
For example, Moon uses ‘clones’ as a science fiction convention. There are two levels (at least) to cloning: A basic level, which is reproduction of the physical body, and a much more advanced reproduction of mind and mentality. Physical cloning is reasonable even with current scientific limitations. It will not be very long (say a decade or two) before a human being is physically cloned. Even at that, the ‘cloning’ will be as an embryo, not a complete adult body. Cloning the memories, mind, and personality is pure science fiction, no more realistic than transposing a human mind into the body of a living avatar. It’s necessary for this story, but science has basically no clue how to do it. As a matter of speculation, both levels of cloning present myriad problems starting with genetic and metabolic issues and including issues with profound social and moral impact. Moon is not interested in these issues; a missed opportunity perhaps.
When Sam (clone 2) gets into the Helium-3 delivery capsule as a means of…uh, escaping…back to Earth, it looks like he’s going on a picnic. As if a spacesuit and cooler of food would keep him alive, regardless of how the capsule makes atmospheric re-entry and the method of landing. Anything designed for return of inanimate material from space will almost certainly not work for anything living – much less something the size and fragility of a human being. I hear that a sequel may be in the works, something about Sam being persecuted for clonehood in Berlin. As if he made it back unbaked.