Next Monday is the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, making for a timely release date for Moon, a tasty little Phildickian tale of clones, paranoia, and futuristic fear and self-loathing. To wit:
You certainly can’t fault Duncan Jones’ ambition. Moon is only his second feature, and yet Jones has boldly gone where directors such as Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Soderberg and Trumbull have gone before. And as if that wasn’t enough pop-culture baggage to lug around, Jones – aka Zowie Bowie, and the director of the quirkiest sci-fi space oddity for some time – is David Bowie’s son.
Under pressure? No man has more …
Actually, Moon unfolds with the easy authority of a director in mid-career. Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, a lone astronaut working on a mining station on the dark side of the moon with only a talking computer, Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey), for company. Sam works for E-Lunar, a company strip-mining the moon of selenium, a miracle energy source which has recently reversed Earth’s chronic energy dependency. With his three-year contract running out in a matter of weeks, Sam is tired, bored and unkempt, but very much looking forward to going home to Earth to see his wife, Tess (Dominique McElligott), and young daughter, Eve.
Unfortunately, while checking out a malfunctioning mining vehicle, Sam has a serious accident. The next we see of him, in the base’s infirmary, the previously scruffy miner is clean-shaven and immaculately dressed. Banned from moving outside the base by Gerty, Sam invents an excuse and goes to check the malfunctioning mining vehicle. Inside the vehicle he discovers his unkempt and unconscious but very much alive doppelganger. Is Sam hallucinating? Has he gone insane? Or has he simply – fiendishly – been cloned?
It may sound perverse to say that a film that so explicitly references some of science-fiction’s most recognisable movies has a freshness and authenticity all of its own, but the movies Moon pays homage to – 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, Solaris, even Blade Runner – are also thoughtful, introspective pieces that trade on the question that has sustained 2,500 years of philosophy: What is it, exactly, that makes us truly human? As Sam and Sam declare an uneasy truce, despite each thinking he is the original and the other the clone, the screenwriters, Jones and Nathan Parker, use their dilemma to ask a series of profound questions about the nature of humanity, about personality and uniqueness, about the very tools we use to measure who we are. As is generally the case with the best sci-fi – or speculative fictions, as its devotees prefer – Moon is a fable about contemporaneous alienation, and for the moon-bound Sam, the isolation is literal as well as psychological and emotional. How is he ever likely to extricate himself from his predicament, asks the story, when he has only his mirror-image to turn to for answers? How is it possible to find the strength to live when your life is not even pointless in the face of the heedless cosmos, but a carbon copy of a pointless existence?
Despite the relatively small budget of £5 million, Jones has created a superb lunar landscape, an utterly believable hinterland that sets the tone for Sam’s isolation with its vast backdrop of the limitless universe. The special effects give proceedings an unexpectedly appropriate other-worldly feel, the exteriors drenched in matt blacks and greys, and gleaming silvers, conveying the sense that Sam has woken up to discover himself not only in a nightmare, but a ghost story too, albeit a haunting that is – as with Kubrick’s The Shining – derived less from the supernatural than the manifestation of a fatally sickening mind.
It’s not a perfect movie, of course. There are craters in the plot, the largest concerning the fact that Sam ploughs a lone furrow as a lunar miner. If selenium is the miracle energy provider the movie claims it to be, wouldn’t a host of companies on Earth have laid claim to parts of the moon? And even if the E-Lunar company had a monopoly on the source of lunar selenium, it would surely have a small army of Sams at work on the dark side of the moon.
Caveats aside, Moon is a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking offering. Rockwell turns in an excellent performance, particularly as he’s playing against himself for practically the entire movie. He does get support from Spacey as the lugubrious robot Gerty, who in turn offers some flashes of black humour. Gerty, to all sci-fi fans, is the latest incarnation of Hal, the mission-wrecking computer from 2001. When Gerty helps rather than hinders Sam at a crucial point in the story, Sam is moved to ask why. “Because it’s my job to help you, Sam,” Gerty replies, deadpan, setting off a million dark and knowing chuckles.
As for Duncan Jones, well, he’s got a black sense of humour too. Rather than have Sam rise each morning to the alarm-clock strains of the more appropriate Space Oddity, or Major Tom, Jones has him wake to (koff) Chesney Hawkes’ The One and Only. ****
Praise for Declan Burke: “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – The Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “A hardboiled delight.” – The Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews (starred review). “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre, was ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL.” – Sunday Times. “The writing is a joy.” – Ken Bruen. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.