Maccewill Yip (or is it his clone?) observes and reports on Duncan Jones’ debut film Moon, questioning its small flashes of fantasy getting in its sci-fi, Hollywood strikes, and the elephant in the room that is Kevin Spacey’s voice-over performance.
I can’t remember when I first heard about Moon. It must have been something I read online, some recommendation or some review, but whatever it was, it put it in my queue, albeit low and as something of a passing awareness. It wasn’t until I saw it on a store shelf that I remembered it and decided to give it a chance. After watching it, I realize how unique it was and wanted to spread the word. There was something grand about it, but also small and personal at the same time. I thought that the director, Duncan Jones, was the man to watch, catching and enjoying, to degree or another, both Source Code and Mute when they came out. (Sorry, but even his name couldn’t bring me to watch Warcraft.) But I think as of now, Moon still stands as his best work.
Overall, the movie still looks pretty damn good for a five-million-dollar sci-fi film. However, that small budget number is somewhat deceptive, because we can’t discount some of Duncan Jones luck, the main one being that he’s the son of David Bowie. As much as he might have done a lot for himself, there’s no denying he has access to connections from his famous father. Another big break was apparently a studio union strike, which allowed him access to effect artists that weren’t working during that period.
It doesn’t hurt that he was able to get both Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey for his first big film.
All right, let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way. Amidst the Me Too movement, Kevin Spacey’s filmography became unwitting casualties. Though the ones hit hardest were recent projects (All the Money in the World, House of Cards, Billionaire Boys Club), there was also some blowback to some of Spacey’s earlier films. There was a story I heard on a podcast where someone who would normally teach American Beauty in a class was debating keeping it in her lesson plans and ended up deciding to rework the discussion of the film. Although Spacey’s role in Moon is limited to just the voice of GERTY the robot, his voice is distinctive and recognizable. As far as I know, there has been no particular blowback against Moon, probably because it’s still relatively unknown amongst the wider mainstream, and I hope it stays that way because it’s still a beautiful film I would want to get greater recognition.
Although difficult, I feel we sometimes need to separate the artists and their work, similar to the concept of death of the author. Oftentimes, when enough time passes, people at large forget the controversy and come back to enjoy the fruit of the poisonous tree. Does that mean we should forget what that person did? No. There still needs to be some accountability for whatever the acts the artists have committed, and it is a valid point to discuss if and when it’s brought up again. However, once the work is out there, the experience of the work itself now belongs to the audience; likewise, so does how they choose to react when they find out that someone involved turns out to have done something that they themselves do not condone.
With that out of the way, we can now focus on the main performance in Moon: Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell. As much as he is praised critically, it seems Sam Rockwell rarely gets the due he deserves. Usually confined to secondary/supporting characters, he reminds me of Harry Dean Stanton. Just as Stanton had his cult film to shine in Paris, Texas (and before his passing, Lucky), Moon is where Rockwell shows how bright he can be. And he does very well playing the two clones. However, I’m reminded after each viewing how it always feels like there are three personalities rather than two. Two of them show up when we see the clones together: the more brash, angry one starting his three-year stint (from now on known as Sam 1), and the subdued, meditative, almost frail one ready to go home after finishing his term (Sam 2). It’s when we see one of them by themselves that they encompass an in-between personality, a somewhat more complicated character that I’m more interested in seeing than the two extremes when they are usually seen together. I understand he needed to play it this way so we could distinguish between the two, but it feels almost disjointed since they are cloned by the same person. This also brings up a question I have: Are they different personalities because of variation in cloning, or is the Sam Bell character always angry early on but mellows out towards the end of his stint? Or maybe it’s the deterioration the Sam clones go through, a possible reference to the replicants and the three-year lifespans in Blade Runner.
Besides that, though, there are beautiful performances. Surprisingly, some of it is between GERTY and Sam Bell. Through some of the early scenes, you can see that the director is playing up the trope of the computer system that tries to follow the one directive to a T that usually ends in disaster to the protagonist (HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Auto in WALL-E, Mother in Alien). Even the voice of Kevin Spacey sets that tone. However, Duncan Jones subverts expectations, showing GERTY’s main command, to help Sam Bell, allows it to assist rather than harm him. It’s why GERTY gets Sam 1 to bring the injured Sam 2 to the infirmary, and why it later helps enter the password to allow Sam 2 to access past files of the previous clones and their fates. Later in the film, Sam 1 says, “Gerty, we’re not programmed. We’re people, do you understand?” It felt like at that moment Sam was not just talking about himself and the other clones, but GERTY as well.
Throughout the film, there are several heartbreaking scenes. There’s the moment GERTY admits to Sam 1 that he is a clone (whereas GERTY uses the sad and crying emoji) and the one where the deteriorating Sam 1 tells the Sam 2 that he is too far gone for their plans to send him back to Earth. But the one that gets to me the most, the one scene that always comes to my mind when I think about this film, is the scene where Sam 1 goes out of range of the satellite jammers that Lunar Industries used to prevent live calls, and was able to call home, only to discover his wife passed away years ago and that he is talking to his daughter, now older and living at home with the original Sam Bell. Unable to take it anymore, he ends the communication and breaks down, as the camera takes you outside and pans around, showing his Moon-bound vehicle facing Earth, which seems both so close and yet so far away. It still moves me every time I watch it.
The scene is still beautiful today and, in fact, most of the effects hold up pretty well. Well, except for some of the early scenes of seeing both Sams together in one shot. It’s probably down more to some awkward blocking, but there are times where, as impressive as it is (especially the ping pong and the fight scenes), it felt like watching the old techniques used in past films to portray twins like The Parent Trap. Besides the effects, there’s also the production design. The design of the base, costume, and vehicles are simple for the most part, but with the limited budget and what they had to work with, it’s still pretty impressive. One particularly interesting design is the use of emojis on GERTY’s display screen. First time I saw the movie, I thought the concept was cheesy, and it almost ruined (for me at least) the emotional moment I mentioned earlier when GERTY explained to Sam 1 that he is a clone. The sad face was all right, but I felt the crying one was maybe a step too far. However, with the prevalent use of emojis in the mainstream, it seems that Moon was surprisingly ahead of its time in that respect. This was the first time I saw the use of it in film, but later I started seeing emojis on robots everywhere (Doctor Who, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, and Love, Death & Robots, just to name a few).
The last thing I want to bring up is something that only happens in the beginning of the film with Sam 1, before Sam 2 is awakened. There are a couple of times when Sam 1 sees a vision of a girl. One time is when he finished watching television and get up to get hot water when he suddenly sees her in the armchair he was sitting in earlier, surprising him and causing him to accidentally burn his hand. The second is when he goes to check on a mining vehicle, when, through a spray of debris, he sees the girl again, distracting him and causing him to get into the accident that traps him. It isn’t until Sam 2 is awakened and get past GERTY to find him still under the rubble of his vehicle does Sam 1 comes back to the story. First thing, it looks like it’s Sam’s grown-up daughter, which is confirmed when we see her when Sam 1 tries to call home. The second thing is, how would he know what she would look like now, since the memories of her implanted into him, plus all the video messages that were altered by Lunar Industries, showed her when she was still a little girl? My early thoughts were somehow he could either just see visions of her out of love, or he’s weakly linked psychically to the original Sam Bell.
It wasn’t until this review that I looked into it and found out through an interview with Jones that my second theory was correct. However, this was probably the one main bit that I just did not like in the film. In a way, the majority of the film is hard science, so this added fantastical element seems out of place. Jones said as much in the interview, saying he wanted to mix in the soft science of twin telepathy. It’s the love is quantifiable speech that Anne Hathaway gives in Interstellar. It felt like a forced means to have the bandage on his hand to make us aware that he is the earlier clone and to get him into the accident that causes GERTY to wake up the new Sam. But then the rest of the movie we have nothing about the visions at all, except for those who were able to pay attention to see it was his daughter, although I think that scene is still effective without the earlier hallucinations. I feel Jones should have done one of two things: either drop the visions entirely, or actually double-down on them to make it more a part of the whole movie. They could’ve played up more of Sam 1 thinking he is hallucinating Sam 2 when they first meet. They could’ve added more visions of his daughter into other parts of the film, making Sam 2 see not only the physical, but supposedly also the mental deterioration of Sam 1.
Overall, though, the film is still pretty solid. As mentioned earlier, I still feel this is the strongest out of the director’s filmography. Source Code is great, but has horrifying in-world implications, and Mute had great ideas, but a little meandering and unfocused. Although they’re not all perfect, at least Duncan Jones takes chances with his sci-fi films, which I respect. There is a scene in Mute where we briefly see what happened to Sam Bell, making both Moon and Mute part of the same movie universe. Jones say he wants to make a third movie within the same world. I hope he gets the funding he can to make it and see how he would build upon his vision.
– There’s another plot hole I noticed. If there are satellite jammers outside the base that prevent it from receiving live feed calls to Earth, how did GERTY hold a conversation with members at Lunar Industries? Even if GERTY can turn off the jammers somehow in the base, why didn’t he do it to help Sam? This one I could kind of forgive, because it lead to the scene of Sam 1’s call to his daughter outside far outside the case.
– I know, I mangled the legal terminology of “fruit of the poisonous tree,” but kept it because it still felt effective metaphorically.
– It’s interesting what happens in film productions during strikes. Moon got access to effects artists and use of huge soundstage, and Joss Whedon was able get a normally busy crew for his small online mini-series, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog. But the most striking one I can think of is Breaking Bad being forced to do a short first season. Initially, it was planned that Walter White would completely break bad by the end of the first season, but the change made the showrunners rethink that concept into a gradual arc throughout the series.
— Maccewill Yip