It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

A One-Man Job: Moon


I am, I admit, not much of a fan of science fiction films. Too many of them privilege visual spectacle over story, or characterisation, or rigour, or plot logic, or even anything approaching an intelligent take on their subject. So it’s more by accident than design that I find I’ve watched all but one of the films on this year’s Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form short list. For the record, the nominees are:

Avatar looked fantastic, but was “about forty years out of date – in plot and in its somewhat offensive sensibilities – and suffers from some dodgy logic and some even worse dialogue” (see here). District 9 I found very disappointing, and was not at all impressed (see here). Star Trek XI was monumentally stupid (see here). I’ve yet to see Up. But Moon, I watched only recently, and…

First of all, given the film’s $5 million budget Duncan Jones and his crew did an impressive job. Moon certainly doesn’t look cheap. Having said that, it makes an effort towards realism, but actually owes more to cinematic representations of the Moon than it does to the place visited and filmed by the Apollo astronauts. It’s not just that the gravity appears to be the same as Earth’s – although, bizarrely, star Sam Rockwell seems to move in slow motion when outside the moon base. The base itself resembles something designed for a movie, with its Syd Mead lines, and the fact that it’s so huge for just one person. There’s a famous photo of one of the Apollo astronauts seemingly embedded in machinery – that’s how cramped the Command/Service Module was. Putting mass on the Moon is expensive.

And yet, the reason there is a moon base on the far side of the Moon in the first place is good science. Sam Rockwell’s character, Sam Bell, is the supervisor of a number of robotic harvesters of Helium-3. In his book Return to the Moon, Harrison Schmitt of Apollo 17 presented an excellent case for mining Helium-3 from lunar regolith (see here). When, in Moon, one of the harvesters breaks down, Bell rides out in a rover to investigate the problem. Unfortunately, he’s not been feeling well of late, and his attention is distracted as he approaches the harvester… causing him to crash. There is no one else on the Moon and, thanks to a malfunctioning relay satellite, no way for Bell to call from the far side of the Moon to Earth. He is going to die. But then he wakes up back at the moon base. Except it’s not him. It’s a clone. This second Bell goes out and rescues the one who crashed. Resulting in two Sam Bells…

It’s a clever conceit – although Bell realises his true nature suspiciously quickly, as if the story needed to skip past the discovery phase in order to continue on with the resolution. In retrospect, the only problems I have with the film are niggles such as that. The lack of one-sixth gravity, the size of the moon base, the unnecessarily huge size of the moon rovers (and putting the hatch on top? that’s a terrible design for a vehicle to be used with spacesuits)… It’s a bit like those nuts who think the Apollo lunar landings were faked – when it costs more to maintain the fiction than it would have done to actually do it, then the conspiracy is plainly rubbish. And so with Moon – Lunar Industries, the movie’s fictional company, economises by using clones to run its Helium-3 mining operation, but then gives the clone an enormous moon base to live in…

I think this is worthy of comment because I’m fascinated by the Apollo programme, because I’ve read a number of books, and seen a number of films, on the subject – witness my other blog A Space About Books About Space. Yet I also read science fiction (and review it and write it). I speak the language of science fiction, in other words. And that can operate sometimes like a reverse Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis – as soon as a word is spoken, the concept behind it becomes obvious. Which means I’m likely to focus on the presentation of the conceit, rather than on how the conceit drives the plot…

Happily, Duncan Jones has disarmed most such criticism by consciously referencing other sf films. As you watch Moon, you find yourself going: “That’s from AlienOutland2001Silent Running…” Not to mention that much of the look of the film is a mix of Syd Mead, Ron Cobb and Gerry Anderson. Moon is a film which is very much in conversation with the genre. And it’s quite a loud conversation. The real-world science behind Helium-3 mining, the use of lunar scenery which actually looks like the real Moon… all these only make the conversation more compelling and interesting.

Will Moon make my best five films of the year? Unlikely. It’s the best of those I’ve seen so far on the Hugo shortlist without a doubt. It is, in fact, a good little film. But, like O2, I’m not overly fond of niggles.


3 thoughts on “A One-Man Job: Moon

  1. Pingback: Readings & watchings 8 « It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

  2. Pingback: 20 British sf films « It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

  3. Yea moon is a superb piece of sf cinema-one of the best! Duncan Jones is a name to watch!

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