Programme notes: Moon
Between 1936 and 1950, Hollywood lost interest in the science fiction genre. After the heroic Buck Rodgers, mainstream cinema kept its exploits strictly Earth based and it was only post-WWII with the small scale but fairly realistic moon landing film Destination: Moon that interest skywards was reignited. Far from being ‘futuristic’, Destination: Moon clearly defined the politics of its time and laid out the rationale for the coming space race with the Soviets. Its focus on the technical aspects of space voyage split the sci-fi space genre from its fantasy origins into a more relevant, far more powerful medium of film; the cinema of ideas.
Duncan Jones’ debut feature, Moon, is a similarly low budget project with big ideas for today’s audience. Moon reflects contemporary concerns over clean energy supply and corporate strongholds and does so in a technically astute production. From Jones’ original concept and Nathan Parker’s screenplay, Moon touches on the lonely aspects of life outside human territory. Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is the man on the far side of the moon and works for Lunar Industries, a company which is solving mankind’s energy crisis by harvesting Helium 3 from the lunar surface and shipping it back to Earth. Sam is coming to the end of his three-year mission; soon he will return to his wife and child on Earth and will be replaced on site by another Lunar Industries technician. Sam’s only companion is ‘Gerty’ the ship’s computer that has an emoticon for a face and Kevin Spacey’s almost benevolent monotone as its voice, reminiscent of Hal 9000, the sentient computer of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Without being overtly derivative, Moon uses previous imagery and deeply ingrained ideas of the genre to broaden the darker science fiction theme of alienation.
2001: A Space Odyssey remains the classic archetype for the genre, with iconic imagery that is still pertinent to our cultural references today. Produced at the end of 60s era experimentalism, Kubrick’s reductive history of humankind and expansive view of the universe inspired subsequent filmmakers on how to shoot blank space. Space in this context acts like a giant mirror, held up against humanity to see how people exist in a vacuum, without physical boundaries or more significantly, a moral environment. It is an alien point of view of human complexity and Kubrick‘s famous ‘Stargate’ scene blurs the moment in which the human mind ends and physical space begins. Furthermore, the ageing sequence in which Dr David Bowman grows old in condensed time and space could have well been an inspiration for Jones when conceiving Moon’s original concept. The psychological and philosophical themes of 2001 helped develop a spate of introspective, claustrophobic science fiction features in the more cynical, paranoid 1970s. This includes Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), Silent Running (1972) directed by Kubrick‘s special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull, John Carpenter’s B-movie Dark Star (1974) and most famously, Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) in which the legendary tagline “in space, no one can hear you scream” recognises that solitude is humankind’s greatest fear. These are all films that explore the edges of known space (and unknown psyche) yet also sets its science fiction as a counter-culture hypothesis.
Science fiction has always been a critical medium, a chance for cultural commentators to expose the fears and hypocrisies of the mainstream. Cahiers du Cinema lauded the cautionary tale, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), which was released during the first stages of the Cold War, for its ‘moral relativism’. Most recently, Pixar’s Wall.E demonstrates evidence of a ‘green’ agenda and warns of the consequences of selfish consumerism. As Roger Ebert commented in the Chicago Sun Times, “Wall.E involves ideas…and a little thought that might be especially stimulating for younger viewers.” Conservative commentators, however, such as Sharon Coffin of the National Review, complained that her children were “bombarded by leftist propaganda”. Yet the films of 70s went further than a general liberal view, where the distrust of authorities that had developed during 60s protests was upheld and blasted into outer space. The deceitful Hal 9000 represents the establishment and our own fear of the technology that propels us as a species. Hal 9000 and other robotic creations, such as Ash the ruthless scientist in Alien, present a moral manipulation of man by machinery, usually on behalf of a greater evil.
There are similar warnings of the responsibility of technology through most sci-fi blockbusters from Terminator (1984) to Jurassic Park (1993), but in space, where the air you breathe is dependent on life support, any rebellion takes on a subversive, self-destructive quality. In Solaris, Kelvin’s dead wife Hari, a hallucination caused by the exploration of a mysterious planet, is doomed to kill herself repeatedly. A combination of Kelvin’s inner psyche and unknown forces, Hari’s fate discloses the dangers of space exploration and the ugly truth that is uncovered about ourselves in the process. These films of extraterrestrial alienation are meditative observations on what it is that makes us human. The final frontier is not another galaxy, but the outreaches of our eternally curious minds. Alone in his outpost, Sam is about to make a grim discovery which will give him a new perspective on his life. As a genre film, Moon could easily fit into the 70s catalogue. Its special effects and model work, filmed at Shepperton studios on a $5 million budget, is particularly reminiscent of the era. However, it’s the concession to the genre’s philosophy that elevates this small story to the level of a minor classic. It riffs on the familiar themes of a dystopian future - manipulation by higher forces, the dehumanisation of the individual and the depiction of emotional solitude. Sam may not know it, along with the doomed crewmembers of the Nostromo, Dark Star and the Discovery One, but he is just another part of cinema’s grand experiment, a cultural guinea pig to test the limits of this entity we call human.
Emma Lennox, freelance journalist for Glasgow Film Theatre