18 August, 2009

Take your protein pills and put your helmet on

So here's the thing.

Sam Bell is tired, he is alone, he is 250,000 miles from home. As the sole resident of a fully-automated moonbase mining an essential mineral for power generation back on Earth, Sam's not really needed - his only job is to keep an eye on any problems with the mechanised works. So he spends most of his time watching television, exercising in the gym, or building an intricate model of a small town. Problems in the communications systems mean all contact he has back home, whether with his bosses or his family, is limited to pre-recorded video messages. His only real-time conversation is with GERTY, the robot that actually runs the moonbase. But Sam is coming up to the end of his three-year shift - soon his replacement will arrive and he can return home. And it's about time - the isolation seems to have left him going a little crazy, suffering from disturbing hallucinations. After being involved in a terrible accident while outside the base, he wakes to find himself in the infirmary, with GERTY assuring him all is fine, although the robot does seem to be hiding something. And then... Well, I can't say what happens next, because to do so would ruin the surprise and joy of watching one of my favourite films in the festival unfold.

Moon (please do not watch the far-too-spoilery trailer here) is the first film from director Duncan Jones, son of another famously space-obsessed artist. But while his father is someone who was definitely interested in spectacle, Jones seems almost uninterested in the wonder offered by the film's location. The film ventures out onto the moon's surface only rarely, when absolutely required by the plot, and mostly stays firmly within the confines of the moonbase. No doubt it's partly a money-saving exercise - the film may use (rather impressive) modelwork instead of expensive CGI, but shooting on set has still got to be cheaper for a low-budget film - but Jones also seems aware that focusing the film on the spectacle of the moon as a location would have distracted from the film's focus as a character piece.

And it absolutely is a character piece. So often science fiction films present space as the final frontier, an exciting world to explore. And no doubt it is, for those pioneers who are breaking new ground in space exploration. But Moon presents us with someone for whom space is just where he works. Sam would probably have been excited when he first arrived, "Oh my gosh, I'm on the moon!", but three years later, he barely even thinks about it. He just gets up and goes to work, never even thinking about the phenomenal view out the windows, because (strange as it seems) he's actually become bored by it. But on top of the mundane day-to-day existence, there's also the isolation. Watching the film, I was reminded of the documentary In The Shadow Of The Moon. In one part Michael Collins (the third astronaut on Apollo 11) spoke about being left alone to orbit the moon while Armstrong and Aldrin went down in the lunar module. He talked about being the loneliest man ever, with not a single human being within thousands of miles. In making Moon, Jones was clearly very aware of the sense of isolation that comes from being so far away from even the possibility of human contact. Humans are essentially social beings, so how do you cope when you're a quarter-of-a-million miles from the nearest human being, and you have been for over a thousand days? What kind of toll would that take on you?

At the centre of the film is Sam Rockwell, an actor whose presence automatically makes any film a little bit more interesting. And in Moon, he is the film. After all, he has no interaction with anyone on Earth - the prerecorded nature of all messages from the planet make him a passive viewer for any such scene. He occasionally talks to GERTY, a robot that speaks with the calmed tones of Kevin Spacey, but for huge chunks of the film he has to carry the film alone. I don't know how many scenes in the film consist entirely of Sam Rockwell talking to himself, but there's a lot of them. And it's a credit to Sam Rockwell, and the intelligent and challenging script that he's working from, that these scenes are as compelling and convincing as they are.

One of the problems with modern films is that the twist ending is so prevalent a storytelling device, which means that whenever watching a film that establishes some type of mystery the viewer finds themselves expecting that the explanation will be held back until the end. In that mindset, there was a moment where I was worried the film would disappoint me. There is a pivotal development that comes in the film, not long after Sam wakes in the infirmary, that frustrated me largely because as soon as it happened it became clear to me as a viewer what was actually going on (to be honest, it's not exactly an original scenario). And so watching our main character walk around asking himself "What's going on?" became frustrating, because I thought it was so obvious what was happening, and years of twist-endings had me expecting the film to hold back the revelation until the end. Instead, after only a couple of minutes, Sam himself articulates what is happening, and this is confirmed not long after. And this means that the film can move on to more interesting material, as the film can start to focus on the implications of the revelation. It's not "What is going on?", but "How would someone react, cope with this knowledge?" And that makes the film much more interesting. You see, in a way, Moon is one of the purest science-fiction films out there. It's not a big adventure film, a space opera, or a space western. Instead, it's unmistakably about humanity, using the science fiction setting to explore questions and issues about who we are as humans, what is it that makes us human. And that's what pure science fiction has ultimately always been about.

The most exciting news around the film is that it seems Duncan Jones has not finished with this world yet. I can't find the reference right now, but I remember reading reports that Moon may be the first of a trilogy of sorts. And while these days an announcement of a trilogy to follow a single successful film is the norm (and almost invariably proves disappointing), in this case I'm rather positive about the idea should it eventuate. And that's partly because, in Moon, Jones has crafted an intelligent, thoughtful, and challenging film, and I see no reason to expect him to do any less in the future. But it's also because it seems he's not talking about a direct sequel per se. It sounds like they will be new stories that will take place in the world established by this film, but he won't be going over the same ground. Certainly Sam Rockwell has confirmed that his character will be making a short cameo appearance in the second film, but that it won't revolve around him at all. And that's good, because that will force the sequel to move into new directions, explore new ideas and concepts. And I'm excited to see just where Jones takes us next.

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