Sunday, July 19, 2009

Space Oddity

Moon was what I like a scifi film to be. It had that classic "what if" premise- presuppose a technology or event and view it through the lens of some aspect of our human nature, extrapolate and build a story from there. In this case, the tech is our new found ability to mine abundant and clean-burning energy (Helium 3) from sun-charged moon rocks. And the lens? Our species' eternal hunt for the Free Lunch. But as we all know, there's no such thing. And no amount of technological advancement can change that.

Spoilers, minor and major, follow. Read before seeing if you wish- the real quality of this movie isn't in the "twist," revealed early on. Its a human story.

Moon is the story of Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell, last seen by me as the villain in Charlie's Angels. Upgrade!). When we meet him, he's at the tail end of a three year contract with Lunar Industries, apparent monopoly-holders of the Helium 3 industry. He's got the shaggy hair and disheveled clothing of a man who's been alone for a very long time. He spends his downtime carving an intricate model of his hometown, talking to his plants ("You're awfully full of yourself today, Doug") and dreaming of the time when he can return to his wife Tess and daughter Eve. He's also a Tennessee Titans fan. But unfortunately for Sam, he's starting to hallucinate, causing him to crash his rover while out on the job. End scene.

(Here be spoilers)

The next time we see him, he's waking up in the infirmary. But something's off, you feel it right away. There's no sign of injury. His hair is cut and he looks oddly...crisp. Chipper, even. But his robot helper GERTY (more on this fabulous mechano-creature later) is adamant that he stay a-bed, mentioning a crash and a concussion. Newly peppy Sam, however, is having none of it- he wants to get back to work asap. He drives out to the broken harvester, crashed rover still stuck underneath it. And what does he find inside? Why, himself! Unconscious with a big ol head injury. A mystery!

And then things get going and plans are hatched. Details are unimportant, but let it be known that Mr. Rockwell does a wonderful job playing to two Sams- OldSam with a good-natured (though willfully blind, incurious) zen attitude, NewSam with a temper and an aggressive, almost militaristic drive to find out what exactly is going on. And that's enough plot- suffice it to say, what is the logical extension of a search for ever-cheaper labor, given advanced technology? Here's a hint: Free Lunch with a side of sinister.

Although there is ambiguity at first about whether this is just continuing insanity on the part of OldSam, it is dispensed with pretty quickly thanks to GERTY. GERTY is one of the best parts of this movie. Voiced by Kevin Spacey, in serial-killer-in-Se7en monotone, the GERTY 3000 looks like an overgrown 90s-era PC. He's beat up, dirty, covered in coffee stains and post-it notes, and he expresses himself through emoticons. Awesome.

This, actually, is another thing I loved about this movie- it is endearingly low budget. This is not to say that a scifi movie can't be good if its a multi-million dollar endeavor, but because of the futuristic settings the genre is particularly prone to getting bogged down in flashy CGI at the expense of characterization and story. Moon definitely avoided this pitfall. The action takes place mostly within the moon base, a film set that doesn't look much more complicated than the first incarnation of the Millennium Falcon. There didn't appear to be any CGI-constructed environments- everything outside the base was a very obvious miniature. I got a geeky, b-movie warm fuzzy every time I saw that lunar rover, clearly no more than five inches tall pull out of an equally flimsy-looking moon base exterior.

Anyway, back to GERTY. For the first chunk of the movie, that HAL-like name and the overly calm, solicitous Kevin Spacey monotone sparks a vaguely sinister tone. You keep expecting that white eye to go red and for poor GERTY to go off the murderous deep-end. But this early-generation HAL in fact over-corrects the other way. While HAL's ultimate focus is The Mission, GERTY's loyalty lies with Sam. He's there to help the human do his job, but it seems those "job" parameters weren't programmed in quite specifically enough because GERTY goes out of his way to help the poor guy. From constant, mother hen-like offers of food, to pats on the shoulder, to helping Sam discover the truth about himself, GERTY is just plain nice. No doubt lunar industries was a bit peeved by some of GERTY's assistance to Sam- perhaps ultimately leading to a more tightly programmed 9000-series successor.

If you haven't guessed it yet, yes, Sam is a clone. Several iterations away from the original, that three-year contract ends in vaporization and activation of a new unit. But just in case something goes wrong, there is a fail-safe built in: an expiration date. As the movie progresses, we literally see Sam's body fall apart at the seams. Although only alluded to by the Sams in euphemistic terms ("You look awful."), it is clear that both of them know what is going on and how it will end. Darco and I had a post-film discussion about the fact that the subject is never broached directly- it bugged him because he said it felt out of character for the straight-forward and aggressive NewSam. I 100% disagree. Imagine you were looking at a loved one, lying in a hospital bed. You know they're going to die, they know they're going to die...but no one is going to say so. Death is a thing of euphemism, to see someone else dying is to confront your own fate. Even more so if that other person is, in fact, you. And doubly more so if it reveals to you the date of your own demise.

So...what is one to do with that knowledge? Well, you'll just have to watch the film. All I'll say is that Moon ends with a discordant poke at Rush Limbaugh-y anti-immigration nonsense. Whaaa?

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