MOVIE: Moon (2009)

Last week, I got a chance to see this new sci-fi movie at the Seattle International Film Festival.  Yes!  I saw a movie IN A THEATER!  It’s a freakin’ miracle, I know!

To be honest, based on what I’d heard about this film, I was pretty sure it would be terrible.   But I love Sam Rockwell, and when I heard that the director, Duncan Jones, was also going to be at the screening, that kind of clinched it for me.  I love hearing filmmakers talk about their own movies, even when their movies might sort of suck.  And that goes double for when the director also happens to be the son of David Bowie (Duncan Jones = Zowie Bowie).  How could I NOT go see what Zowie Bowie was like in person?  Couldn’t.

First things first:  Zowie Bowie is completely adorable.  The moment he cited Outland and Silent Running as the two movies that made him fall in love with science fiction, I knew we were meant to be together forever.  Zowie:  call me.  We’ll talk.

Second things second:  This movie turned out to be completely different from what I’d expected based on the plot descriptions I’d read.  Some of what I’d heard was true:  it is indeed about an astronaut engineer (named Sam and played by Sam) who has been living alone on the moon for three years running a drilling operation that harvests an alternative energy source called Helium 3.  He’s almost done with his three-year contract when a bunch of strange things start to happen, including the sudden appearance of a young dark-haired woman, not his wife. But here’s where the plot description breaks from the movie:  I’d heard he starts to go mad, and, as it turns out, that’s not what happens at all.

And thank god for that too, because about fifteen minutes into this film, I knew the madness thing wasn’t going to work for me.  This film is set in the future, and we already know right NOW that you can’t put a human being in total isolation for three years and expect him to be functional (go read Hellhole by Atul Gawande for a stunning look at solitary confinement and its effects:  http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/03/30/090330fa_fact_gawande).   No corporation would ever do that — not for three years.  It didn’t make any sense; it wouldn’t be a viable operation.  When, about fifteen minutes into this film, it looked like the story was indeed headed in that direction, a tsunami of total annoyance came a’crashin’ over me.  In fact, I got so annoyed, I scribbled the word “FRAK” in all-caps with 8 exclamation points after it in my notebook.

Like this –> FRAK!!!!!!!!

Now that’s annoyed, people!

Luckily, this isn’t actually what’s going on.  What’s going on is far more interesting and makes a rather brilliant amount of sense, especially from a corporate perspective.  And while I had the “twist” figured out much earlier than I think Jones wanted me to — in fact, I had it figured out the moment Sam crashed his rover about twenty minutes into the picture — the way the story progressed from there was still pretty satisfying, I thought.

And so, as it turned out, I ended up really liking this movie.  It is not without a few flaws, though, the primary one being the character Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey).   Gerty is Sam’s only companion, a computer like Hal 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, except not quite as sociopathic.  Gerty’s “face” is a screen that features an ever-changing cartoon-style emoticon, used to convey the tone with which his statements to Sam are to be received:  a smiley face when all is good, a sad face when there is a problem, a questioning face when something does not compute, etc.  I thought this was quite clever, actually, since the vapid overuse of emoticons is something most of us can relate to these days, and it’s used to great comedic effect on Gerty, I must say.

The problem I had with Gerty, though, is that, as a computer programmer of sorts myself, his “behavior” struck me as completely illogical.  Gerty has been programmed to assist Sam in any way he might need assistance, and it seems clear early on that Gerty’s primary function is to help and protect Sam and Sam alone.  But as the movie progresses, Gerty starts telling Sam all kinds of things it made no sense for him to tell Sam.  Without giving anything away, Gerty tells Sam the truth about himself, as well as all kinds of details about what’s actually going on from the corporate side of things.  But I’m telling you this: the people running the show behind the scenes would not have programmed Gerty to tell Sam anything about the truth — it could only serve to panic Sam and ruin their entire operation, which is exactly what ends up happening.  But more importantly, not only would Gerty not have been programmed to tell Sam the truth, Gerty would have been explicitly programmed NOT to tell Sam the truth. There would not have been left a loophole on this.  And computers can’t just make up their reactions — every reaction is programmed, even if it seems spontaneous.  Their “behavior” isn’t behavior; it’s code.

That said, as problems go, this was a pretty minor one, all things considered.  At the root of this film is a pretty moving and often amusing story of one man struggling with a major, major identity crisis, trapped in an glaringly-white space station 86 gazillion miles from Earth, alone, lonely, lost, and increasingly alarmed.  And Sam Rockwell just kicks this movie’s ASS, people.  It’s the Sam Rockwell Show, for reals.  I have to make that man a Boyfriend of the Week STAT.

This movie opens on June 12th in New York, and will spread to other cities shortly after that.  If it comes to your town, definitely check it out and let me know what you think!

[Pre-queue me at Netflix | Trailer]

Genre: Science Fiction
Cast:  Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey (voice)

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7 Responses to “MOVIE: Moon (2009)”

  1. Lorraine Says:

    I’m not sure that this movie appeals to me, except for the fact that you say it is “The Sam Rockwell Show”. I’m still undecided if I should check it out when it become available. Thanks for the info.

  2. Liz Says:

    “Open the pod bay doors!”

    [BTW, David Bowie’s big hit, about “Maj. Tom,” was called “Space Oddity!”]

    This movie sounds quite good, and I’m very impressed that Z. Bowie was so influenced by “Outland” and “Silent Running.” “Running” was indeed an excellent, thought-provoking film (I’ve always thought that Bruce Dern has been underrated). I remember something about “Outland,” but, unfortunately, not very much.

    And (gasp)) I don’t know if I’ve seen Sam Rockwell or not! I’ll be renting this movie.

  3. Trip Says:

    My God, someone else has seen Outland?! I loved that flick – so overlooked and underrated. Connery vs. Boyle in a Jupiter-moon explosive-decompression showdown.

    Drugs! Early shuttles! Rugged miners in closed quarters! Virtual golf!

  4. megwood Says:

    Outland is one of my favorite sci-fi movies! Which is why I immediately fell in love with Zowie Bowie the moment he cited that as an inspiration. Swoon!

  5. Trip Says:

    OK Meg, I’m right there with you on this review; it’s spot-on. I had the exact same experience 15-20 mins in…I actually looked at my watch and sighed, hoping that it wasn’t going the way I thought it was going.

    I saw the twist coming early on too, but was pleasantly surprised at how it transpired, and I think that’s when Rockwell’s performance really started to grab me.

    I’m finding that this is a movie that’s really hard to talk about after-the-fact without giving a lot away. But I will say I liked the way that the physical deterioration was never directly explained – rather, the audience is trusted to have seen other films portraying this and understand without having their hands held.

    There is a heavy and refreshing 1970s influence – loved the awareness and awakening themes in it. Can’t tell you how many times I was reminded of Bruce Dern, THX-1138, and yes, even Outland, although that was ’81. Mission accomplished indeed.

    I liked the little details that’s everywhere in the background that clues you into Sam’s character. The “kick me” note on Gerty, the console next to Sam where one of the harvesters had its Biblical name crossed out and “Judas” written next to it – cute touches.

    And the Gerty wrinkle doesn’t really offend me as much as uploading a virus with a Mac which brings down an entire invasion fleet.

  6. William Says:

    I just saw it a few nights ago, and agree with many of your points.

    Yes, people can go crazy in isolation, but if it were such an absolute, the concept “hermit” would be closely associated with “crazy”, and Robinson Crusoe would be associated with madness instead of self-reliance. Also, Tom Hanks’ “Cast Away” would have been panned for the reasons you suggest, but I don’t recall any such reviews. Living in isolation is not as unbelievable as you suggest.

    It did bother me that Gerty revealed so much to Sam, as I agree that corporate interests (which funded and built Gerty) would not overlook this flaw, but the people who programmed the medical/psychological parts of Gerty may have included such behavior deep in the code, or maybe a secret moralist on the design team would have left in a back door to update Gerty’s programming *after* his installation on the Moon. Since Gerty’s creation is not explained in the movie, it could go either way. A comparison of Gerty to HAL is inevitable, given the similarity of the conditions, but if you read Clarke’s novel 2001, you will get a more complete explanation of HAL’s motivations.

    On an emotional level, I *liked* the fact that Gerty helped him out, and disregarded the likelihood of corporate overrides. Gerty is isolated on the Moon, too, and needs a certain amount of autonomy to survive.

    Another technical quibble could be made about how *long* Sam was left at the crash site before being rescued. It appeared to be days to me, and I don’t think *any* spacesuit would have that much air. Besides, he should’ve frozen to death, first. Then again, maybe the suit was plugged into the rover’s air supply, and maybe the rover’s heaters didn’t break down, keeping him warm enough for long enough to be rescued.

    And the way the clones were preserved was questionable.

    However, most of these faults aren’t as blatant as ones in other popular movies–spacecraft going “whoosh!” in the vacuum of space, or icebergs sinking on an Arctic underwater lair–so the amount of disbelief to be suspended was actually minimal.

    Also, how good a movie is is primarily judged how well it tells a story, and since Sam is so believable a character (to me), the story held up well.

  7. megwood Says:

    Glad you enjoyed the movie! I do have to quibble slightly with your first paragraph, though. I would argue, actually, that the word “hermit” does carry a connotation of “crazy” with it. Robinson Crusoe wasn’t actually living alone (Friday, remember?). And Tom Hanks was not what I would describe as “completely sane” by the end of Cast Away, though I think, personally, that there would be a big difference for your brain between those two situations — struggling to survive on a deserted island vs. the mental stagnation of living in a completely controlled environment in space (or in a Supermax prison, to go back to the New Yorker article I cited above).

    There’s plenty of scientific evidence supporting the connection between complete isolation and madness. But that’s not really the point. My point was not that it’s IMPOSSIBLE to live in complete isolation without going mad — people obviously have done it and emerged just fine. Instead, my argument was that that it’s probable enough that people would become mentally unstable in such a situation that I found it highly unlikely a corporation would take the financial risk. One person goes bonkers and kills themselves or destroys the outpost, and the corporation is screwed, right? That’s why that part of the story didn’t make sense to me, until I figured out what was ACTUALLY going on. And then it made perfect sense to me.

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