Monday, July 6, 2009

A trip to the moon

It's hard to avoid the lure of biological determinism when speaking of Moon. Its director, Duncan Jones, is David Bowie's son; just as his father cemented a reputation as a chameleon effortlessly able to weave various musical styles together, so too does Jones' film flit through the recent history of metaphysical science fiction in a stab at achieving a revealing synthesis and unique identity. (One is especially reminded of Solaris - both the Tarkovsky and Soderbergh versions, particularly through the motif of the apparition, especially important to Moon - and 2001: A Space Odyssey). But while casual Bowie listeners will readily associate his son's film with his father's first major hit, 1969's "Space Oddity" (from the album of the same name), as J. Hoberman does in his recent review, in another sense Moon parallels the 1997 platter Earthling, Bowie's undervalued effort to carve out a distinctive vision through the (even by '97) well-plumbed stylings of trip hop and techno. Although Bowie's music has, with only a few exceptions (most from the 80s), never been known for its earnestness, Earthling's richly textured but icy surfaces are distancing even for a rock star thoroughly trained in the art of surface irony. Moon's existential sci-fi feels, in its own way, just as coolly distant: Jones is more interested in playing with surface than plumbing emotional depths.

The story involves Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), who is, by all appearances, the sole worker on a privately operated moon station designed to harvest solar energy to assuage Earth's energy-related environmental woes. (The film begins with a mock commercial produced by the fictional corporation who owns and operates the base; imagine Al Gore's lecture in An Inconvenient Truth as filtered through a corporate marketing department). It's Sam's isolated experience on this base that the film is most interested in dramatizing. Yet, through no fault of Rockwell's frequently humorous performance, the film remains most fascinating on a visual rather than narrative level (try as Rockwell might, the abstract theme of human isolation is never really felt). But the fact that Moon is primarily preoccupied with its visuals is not necessarily a flaw. Most science fiction, after all, is pivoted around a vision of what the future will look like - one of the abiding pleasures of watching sci-fi films from earlier decades is measuring their fantastical vision of the future in relation to current realities - but the moon base in which Bell lives and works is, strikingly, backwards-looking. The video technology that allows Sam to communicate with Earth is residual - it allows Sam to play back recorded messages with the resolution of a VHS tape but not to speak to others in real time, and it appears almost clunky compared to current video conferencing technology, such as Skype. Similarly, Sam spends his free time watching old sitcoms, and complains that live football (he's a Tennessee Titans fan, his bedroom decor reveals) isn't available on the base. (We can afford to send a man to the moon, but not to equip him with a satellite dish?) One viewer, who I overhead on the way out of the theater, commented that he did not like the film because its moon base setting was so strikingly "out of date." While this comment suggests quite a bit about viewer expectations of the genre - there is perhaps no other lineage of narrative filmmaking in which the "cinema of attractions" and non- or extra-narrative spectacle has remained so alive - it says, I think, little about Moon, which asks us to think a little more about why its setting looks the way it does.

Most science fiction films display visionary technology that we infer to be the apex of what is possible within the present-day reality of the fictional world shown to us. (In other words, we do not watch Star Trek assuming that some more technologically advanced spaceship other than the Enterprise exists off-screen: what we see is the best of what the diegesis has to offer us). But Moon quietly and slowly reveals that its vision of space-age technology, full of stuff that could have come from Captain Kirk's yard sale, is instead curiously existential: the moon base and its various old-school instruments, vehicles, and machines comprise not an attractive vision of the dizzying heights of human scientific endeavor, but are rather inextricably tied to the social and even ontological position of Sam himself. Although Sam is the only individual we see in the film (more on this in a moment), these technological details suggest a hierarchy of power looming behind the operation of the moonbase. Many of the video messages Sam receives are from the headquarters of the executives running the base, and the corporate sheen of their environs look much swankier than the old-school bells and whistles surrounding our protagonist. Social class suggests itself, too, in the decor of Sam's quarters, which suggests a construction worker more than a space-age traveler; indeed, many of Sam's everyday tasks are manual and rotely repetitive. And instead of the centrifugal ring on which David Bowman exercises at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sam is given only a sparse gym with an old punching bag. Solar power may be important to the world of Moon, but not at any cost.

The lunar technology surrounding Sam is not the only throwback to the recent past. (Spoilers aplenty forthcoming, so be forewarned). Sam is just not any working-class guy trying to earn a buck on the moon. After Sam's lunar rover crashes (as a piece of space-age technology in a sci-fi film, it seems clunky and weirdly unwieldy), he soon awakens in the base, only to discover another Sam - a clone - walking about. That the Sam we've been watching up to that point in the film is also soon revealed to be a clone - one in a line of many who have been created to man the moon base, each one generated after the demise of the previous - would seem to force us to reckon with the ethical dilemmas of using machines to replicate humanity and the human-like. "Clones are humans too," one of the Sams says near the end of the film, summing up the film's message in an embarassingly tidy way (and also unwittingly summing up Moon's inability to convincingly embody its ideas, which remain frustrating, surface-level abstractions). The entire film soon becomes an allegory about the nature of isolation, memory, and one's ability to shape a self-identity freely from within the contraints of one's social position, all through the perspective of a man-made man-machine.

As an existential drama about a corporate-controlled clone, it's also important, then, that most of this stuff around Sam is either broken or on its way to breaking. He complains early on about the fact that the company has yet to fix a communications satellite; as Sam soon discovers, poor maintenance of technology applies to his own self. Old video of previous clones reveals that the corporation is even less interested in maintaining their human-like technology than they are in the moonbase. Residual, too, is the Kevin Spacey-voiced Gerty. Gerty is this film's HAL, minus the red light for an eye (Jones uses smiley faces, as in chat room banter, as insignia of Gerty's "emotions"). Gerty seems strangely malicious throughout the film, even though he is ultimately benign and even friendly (we're led to expect the worst not only because of the reference to the wicked HAL, but also because of Spacey's Keyser Soze-inflected star persona). But unlike the impressive HAL, which runs the ship in 2001, Gerty doesn't do much: he seems primarily there for the sake of Sam's sanity, and becomes a close friend after Rockwell's character becomes conscious of his status as a clone. The link between Sam and Gerty is the film's only relationship, and it's ultimately moving because each of them is a piece of discarded techno-refuse that nevertheless still has something to tell us.

Cloning is, of course, no longer a topical subject, but that is part of Moon's conceit: in the world of this film, cloning itself is almost as quaint a technology as the bulky monitors on which Sam watches his video messages (I almost expected the character to pull out a game of Atari Pong to play on the screen). Perhaps Moon is asking us to realize that ethical questions regarding technology remain even as that technology slips quietly into the background; that cloning has itself become residual, at least relative to this week's news of dazzling scientific endeavors, is no acceptable conclusion to what should be an ongoing ethical inquiry. This inquiry has a cinematic tradition: Blade Runner, after all, asked us to reflect upon the ethical dimensions of empathisizing with human-like non-humans. But Moon, which remains gently distant from Sam while at the same time giving us just enough to understand him, is ultimately concerned with prompting us to consider the social, rather than personal or emotional, ramifications of technologies which produce human-like non-humans. Yet this approach is ultimately less than revelatory, at least emotionally speaking, given that its drama falls so flat. It's not until an hour into this film that we realize that Sam is a clone, yet the emergence of this fact does not really prompt us to reflect upon the nature of our emotional attachment to Sam up to that point in the same way that, say, Kazuo Ishiguro's similarly themed (and remarkable) novel Never Let Me Go does in relation to its characters and a similar revelation. We never become immersed in the film world of Moon; we never feel what Sam is going through, even as the film asks us to compare the isolation of its clone with our own personal socio-existential dilemmas. Like a mildly successful album by its director's father, then, Moon remains a bit too concerned with surfaces to leave a lingering affective mark.


Mattson Tomlin said...

I thought Moon was one of the better films I've seen this year, despite my leaving the theatre pretty certain that its full potential hadn't been tapped. It was, however, extremely refreshing to see a film of that pace once again.

Steven Rybin said...

I tend to agree. It's a movie that becomes more interesting upon reflection. I'm looking forward to seeing it again (and seeing the films Jones directs in the future).