Tuesday, June 23, 2009


I guess there’ll always be a taste for the What-Is-Reality? mind-bender, that sub-genre of movies that establishes one set of rules for its fictive universe only to continually undermine those guidelines and leave the viewer pondering what exactly constitutes the fundamental make-up of his world. After all, our certainty in our own reality is unlikely to increase anytime soon and we need films that reflect this precarious sense of our own existence. And while such projects have a built-in tendency to privilege narrative trickery over existential investigation, at their best they can raise important questions about our ambiguous relationship to our surroundings and the ensuing difficulties of perception.

Last year’s Timecrimes was a superior example of the sub-genre and so is Moon, Duncan Jones’ feature-length debut, although the two films could not be more different. Whereas the earlier picture was more concerned with the intricacies of its byzantine narrative than questions of character, Jones’ movie is cooler, sustaining a note of bemused contemplation even as the demands of the plot finally take over. But Timecrimes managed to work in a fairly sophisticated investigation into the ethics of seeing between its obvious genre thrills and Moon is an even headier- and far more affecting – work. Allowing his character(s) to discover their (lack of) reality relatively early on, Jones structures his film around their slow acceptance of their situation, a strategy that ensures that, for all the film’s narrative play, it continually keeps its attention focused at a refreshingly human level.

Of course, human is a loaded word in Moon. Taking place in a near future in which space missions are organized by corporations rather than the government, the film follows Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), an astronaut completing a three-year assignment at a lunar station. Hired by an energy conglomerate, he harvests helium from the moon’s surface to be sent back to earth as an alternative – and highly profitable – power source. But as the mission nears its end, cracks in the astronaut’s mental armor begin to show. Left alone without a working communication system and only the GERTY computer (a HAL-like piece of artificial intelligence who speaks in a similarly dry monotone and indicates his mood through emoticons) for company, he begins to hallucinate. One day, distracted, he scalds himself with hot water. The next, he crashes his lunar rover.

Waking from the crash, he slowly gets back to business, eventually returning to the moon’s surface to discover the wrecked rover and… himself inside. Bringing the other “Sam” back to the station, he places him in GERTY’s care. Before long we realize that we’ve been following each of the two Sams at different times without realizing that they weren’t the same person. Before the crash, the narrative aligned our perspective with Sam 1, after the crash, Sam 2, and now for the rest of the movie, we follow them both. It can take a second to adjust, but once past the central ontological leap, much of the rest of the film is devoted to the process of comprehending the situation (both for the characters and the viewer), rather than any further mind-bending developments. As the two Sams quarrel and then reconcile, they team up to investigate just what exactly is going on and discover that they’re both clones, part of an endless series of “Sams” created by the parent company to carry out the helium harvesting, and set about disrupting the plans of their makers.

But Moon wears its corporate critique lightly, pitching its inquiry more at the existential than the political level. Set against the antiseptic white walls of the station and the gently glowing pulsations of the lunar surface and powered by a finely gradated performance by Sam Rockwell which manages to distinguish between the behaviors of the two almost identical characters, Jones’ is a film that asks, in an age of artificial intelligence – or, really in any age – what it means to be human. Which turns out to be an interesting question considering that the three figures that we see "in person" – the two Sams and GERTY – are not technically live “people”, while the characters that are unambiguously human exist only through radio transmissions, often several years old.

But in the film’s affective highlight, Jones leaves little doubt as to his answer. After re-establishing communications with earth, Sam 1 telephones his daughter through a video device and finds that she is not 3 years old as expected but 15 and that the 3 years he’s lived as “Sam” fail to cover the bulk of the elapsed time since his memory tells him he’s left earth. After his daughter fails to recognize him and ends the conversation, Sam leaves the rover, turns around and, as the giant outline of earth fills the screen, wistfully intones “I want to go home,” a sentiment as natural to a clone as to any “real” human being.

Still, for all the somewhat easy irony of the artificial intelligence acting “human” (an alignment that extends to GERTY as well, who finally exhibits some generous, very un-HAL like behavior), while the technically human corporate heads act monstrously, Moon’s existential inquiries are considerably more complex. For example, how exactly are we to view the relationship between the two Sams (not to mention all the other “Sams” that may have existed or will exist)? They share (mostly) the same memories, but they are clearly two (or more) distinct people.

The confusion is foregrounded early on when Jones tricks the audience into acknowledging both Sams as the same person, forcing us to accept a continuity of personality between the two, before revealing their separate existences and slightly variant personalities. Then in the film’s conclusion, the question of interchangeability is addressed definitively as the Sams work out which will return to earth, with first one and then the other volunteering. Ultimately, as far as the narrative (both that concocted by Jones and screenwriter Nathan Parker and by the Sams themselves) goes, it doesn’t matter which of them fulfills which role, so long as one stays behind and one returns. Are we then finally to read the two Sams as different aspects of one person or as two distinct beings? The two iterations of the character are probably too similar to accept the former reading, but the latter seems rather unsatisfactory too. Ultimately, what exactly is lost when Sam 2 leaves his doppelganger behind?

If these questions at first seem too specific to an invented set-up that bears no relation to our immediate situation to merit much consideration, then further reflection shows that they’re clearly worth pondering beyond a purely speculative academic exercise. Apart from any interest they may hold as a potential future scenario, they offer a welcome challenge to our neatly constructed sense of identity, causing us to rethink our own standards of self-definition. If the What-Is-Reality? sub-genre has something valuable to offer us, it’s precisely this disturbance of our relationship to our surroundings (and ego) that we tend to take for granted. And by bringing a human face to this specific line of inquiry - even if it’s only that of a clone - Moon offers a particularly resonant entry in our ongoing cinematic efforts to better understand ourselves.


My review of Quiet Chaos has been posted at Slant Magazine.

1 comment:

Allison said...

You might want to put a "spoiler alert" for this review!