It was interesting to see Moon (2009; dir. Duncan Jones) nearly 40 years after watching on television the first landing of human beings on the lunar surface. What was miraculous and epochal in that historical moment in 1969 has become conventional and workaday in Moon. No longer a place of discovery, the moon is the object of a multinational corporation that harvests lunar materials to produce Helium 3, used to generate energy on the earth.
The challenge in writing about this film is not to give away important elements of plot that help make it interesting, and that ultimately keep it from being more original than it seeks to be. Probably not filmed with a large budget, Moon nonetheless succeeds in creating visually convincing depictions of the lunar surface. A film like this one must compete against standards of realism set not only by other films but also by actual missions to the moon, manned and unmanned—virtually everyone has seen the video footage and photographs from those missions. Moon’s modest special effects never undermine the story.
Moon most clearly shows the influence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Less ambitious than that hugely ambitious film, but nearly always alluding to it, Moon also has as a central theme the human relationship with technology. Again we have a computer that looks after the welfare of the crew member at the lunar station. His name is Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell). His role is to ensure that the machines mining the lunar surface are operating properly. When something goes wrong, Sam goes out to fix it. An accident sets in motion the plot of the film. The computer speaks with the voice of Kevin Spacey. In 2001 faulty technology caused the computer HAL to malfunction. Here, although at one point the computer does override its own programming, the real malfunction takes place elsewhere. Although that malfunction is connected with technology, it is more a matter of human morality.
In 2001 technology was apparent in the equipment humans used to travel into and live in space, and in the computers they relied on. In Moon technology also involves biotechnology. While in 2001 the expansion of capitalism into space was portrayed mainly through the proliferation of brand names (some of them now defunct) attached to companies that were operating in space—mainly service companies (United Airlines, ATT, Hilton), the company that the main character in Moon works for is a generically named Lunar Industries. We know that it is a huge corporation that produces and sells energy and that it has apparently boundless resources.
Both Moon and 2001 focus on the isolation and loneliness of humans in space. Both show their characters speaking with family members on the earth. 2001 is more effective in suggesting the nature of its characters’ loneliness in space, and in connecting it to the larger human condition. It makes the audience feel that isolation even if the characters do not. In Moon Sam Bell clearly shows the effects of loneliness and isolation and is impatient for his three-year stint at the lunar base to end.
Certain paradoxes and perplexities afflict Moon. To save funds (apparently) the company apparently chooses to have only one person at a time overseeing its lunar mining operation. He is assigned to a three-year term of service. Yet it becomes increasingly evident that the company’s resources are so vast that the cost of maintaining a larger crew should not have been an issue. Moreover, the measures the company uses to avoid relying on a larger crew would have been extremely expensive. The more one considers this conundrum, the more troublesome it becomes.
The influence of other films is evident here, especially Blade Runner (1982) but also THX 1138 (1971), Silent Running (1972), Soylent Green (1973).
Among the issues at the heart of Moon is what it means to be human and alive. What makes us what we are? Our genetic heritage? Our memories? Our role in some huge commercial megastructure? In 2001 Kubrick showed how technology could become both a transforming mechanism in human evolution as well as a potential fatal flaw. In Moon, director Duncan Jones shows how, potentially, human technology can render human existence insignificant and irrelevant and perhaps simply a trivial cog in a huge revolving and self-perpetuating multinational corporate wheel.