I’ve always avoided discussions about genre deaths, but I recently begun to wonder about the position of the science-fiction genre in current cinema, and even gotten to the point of drawing comparisons to the now unpopular western genre. Not for the same reasons – quite the opposite – but because the aesthetics of it has been so saturated with space operas and technophilia entertainment, as this summer is evidence, yet to find the traditional ideological impulses of the genre one has to dig deep through the mud every year to find one or two entries. The genre might look like it is everywhere, but it isn’t. Then, the debut of Duncan Jones with his sci-fi film, MOON, is found; a movie of ideological inclinations and mediative pictures that works against the populist, superficial trends from today’s technophilia films and returns to the source.
In honor of the word “science” in science-fiction, the film introduces us (through horribly distracting credits) how Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is an employee contracted by the company Lunar Industries to extract helium-3 from lunar soil for much-needed power, which is responsible for 70% of the energy back on Earth at the film’s time. He is stationed for three years at the Sarang lunar base with only a robot named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) for company. The film then follows the introduction with images of how Sam exercises, does inspection around the Moon, and general routine work, ending with him hearing about his wife and daughter, his own source of power. Jones presents to us the human energy of friendship and companionship, with Sam driven primarily by the motivation of the reward where he will be a reunited with his wife and daughter, like a person who wonders at the universe and hopes for religious companionship at the end of his life, and secondarily with the presence and conversations of GERTY to mantain sanity. It is a narrative of pictures crafted with isolation and monotony, but the reactions and interaction of the wife’s messages and the robotic conversations keep Sam (and us) alive with interest. Indeed, the idea of energy translates from the plot of Earth’s power to the very characterization of Sam’s motivation, as everything and everyone needs to run under a source of power and inspiration.
Jones further studies this human importance of archetypal inspirations with contemplations of isolation, unplugging the source of energy that is Sam’s family when the film doubts their, and Sam’s own, existance. During a routine rover excursion to extract helium from a harvesting machine, he sees a girl standing on the lunar surface. Distracted, he crashes the rover into the harvester. Sam awakens in the infirmary and GERTY tells him that he is recovering from injuries sustained in an accident. He goes to the harvester again, where he finds a crew member barely alive in the crashed rover: himself.
In a genre and a setting that usually tends to contain discoveries of the new and unseen in space, the narrative from Duncan Jones begins as an active and engaging experience of uncovering – a series of searches around the Moon and Sam’s base – but eventually makes one face the possibility that what is to be found is simply one’s own mirror. It is a poignant observation about men’s realization of his irrelevancy, like a religious person’s recognition that the universe is godless, when his sense of purpose and promised companionship is questioned as imaginative. Thus while MOON is, indeed, a film focused on solitude, the more astute analysis is that it is further driven by the emotional imperative that is the hopeful expectative that someone or something does actually exists to serve us a sense of self-importance, but then confronts us to the question if there is, in fact, nothing.
The film’s presentation of this existential question and then its answers through Sam’s reactions is the defining characteristic, as the study of Rockwell’s faces become the crux. Jones deals in simplicities to capture the stillness of time, the emptiness of space and also Rockwell’s complex act in it, as it exceeds with a focus on cerebral qualities and the responses from Sam: his different personalities clashing and joining, and finally dealing with the truths that come in his distant space and deserted base. This is a pure human study. Although it would have benefited of being more innovative, since some of its devices often seem derived from rather than invented by, it nevertheless succeeds as a psychological, science-fiction thriller that puts into attention men’s own desire to have an important place in the universe.
The script by Duncan Jones and Nathan Parker might end in a rather simplistic exit – in too much of a neat resolution. But despire its various shortcomings, Jones and Parker use the genre’s source of power – i.e. the examination of intelligence and existential scientific questionings – to create a humanistic experience that moves the viewer with the existential emotions, themes and mediative images about a man’s survival in a dead space. It is good and hopeful to see that films like MOON still are able to survive as well in an almost scarce genre. Hopefully Christopher Nolan’s INCEPTION follows through next year.
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