cinematographique

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Moon ****

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MoonMoon, a giant leap for first-time director Duncan Jones, makes intelligent and affectionate use of many ideas from the great science fiction concept films. It is modest and virtuous, but in the best way – whilst reverent and perhaps a little too modest, too conservative in scope, it refuses to exploit its inspiration, and sticks to a moral code that keeps its philosophical investigation beyond most kinds of reproach. It is also a film best seen without reading any previews or analysis: that’s best kept for the post-viewing experience! We follow Sam (a role written for Jones’s buddy, Sam Rockwell), an isolated lunar technician maintaining a Helium-3 harvesting operation on the dark side of the moon. He lives with Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey), an apparently benevolent computer and mouth of the base. And soon, he is due to return home, reaching the end of a three year contract.

–SPOILER ALERT–

Gerty is something of an hybrid of HAL from 2001 and Huey, Duey and Luey from Silent Running, but the twist is his sincere kindness and sympathy for his human counterpart. Lunar harvesters recall many contraptions of Gerry Anderson, and the great vehicles of Dune. The architecture and infrastructure of the base, as well as the ‘signal down’ motif, are reminiscent of Alien (and coincidentally shot at Shepperton Studios, where Alien was made). Surreal visions of a mysterious woman call upon Solyaris, as do Sam’s hallucinatory bed-time encounters with his self. Shots of strange fields on the surface of the moon connect to shots of the sun in Sunshine and of Solaris itself. And we return to Silent Running and Sunshine for Sam’s miniature garden. But on a much deeper level, Moon resonates with its progenitors: it deals with some practical ethical issues that derive from personal identity thought experiments, just like Blade Runner (for its stars are the same cloned entities as the replicants of that great work); it touches upon themes of evolution toward and away from the organic, and life as a force ‘becoming’, as does the Alien series. And there are further examples, to boot.

Moon2Moon begins in the vein of a psychoanalytical drama, examining a mind fragmented. From the start, Sam’s physical and mental health are deteriorating – he suffers from chronic headaches, he starts to vomit blood and lose teeth. And he seems to be seeing things. A look into the effects of prolonged solitary confinement in the most deeply alienating environment? We see Sam at the beginning and the end of his time on the station, and are afforded insight into his three-year character arc, his changes for better and worse. But then the film takes a turn to prove that what appears to be mental disintegration is, as far as we are concerned, to be taken as fictively real beyond question. Because Sam doesn’t just start to hallucinate himself: he comes face to face with his fellow clone and replacement. Apparently the charmingly sinister Lunar Corporation made a lot of copies of the original Sam, and grew them with a three-year genetic kill-switch. Their escape pod is an incinerator. And the Sams team up to try break the cycle of murder, to publicly challenge the assumption that they are less than human.

The psychological aspect doesn’t disappear, but instead of examining the pathologies of Sam, we explore the psychoanalytic repercussions of having ones Master Signifier destroyed, of ones world collapsing, as the real and imaginary collide to expose the Real – a transcendental struggle to comprehend and reconcile a disparate circumstance and conception of reality. And so we leave the world of psychodrama, and enter a thought experiment – an internally consistent world of fiction whose propositions are entertained as constants and variables analogous to our beliefs about the world. This is a thought experiment which tackles epistemic questions, questions of self-knowledge, personal identity, value, human experience. And these fall out into practical ethical problem areas, who are treated to a tentative analysis.

Moon3Moon presents our moral obligation to treat this type of clone as a full person, in lieu of any evidence to the contrary; and it shows how the sort of treatment metered out by Lunar Corp. is immoral. It shows how unethical it is to implant in them false beliefs, even if it seems a justifiable kindness given their short lifespan and unsavory predicament: a psychological safety net to help cope with an unacceptable situation. And it takes a stand against supposed correlations between longevity and value of life, recognising temporality as a precondition of our being, and advocating vitality in the face of paucity. The second Sam is blessed with an opportunity to return to Earth, to live well. This is so edifying because it takes the lessons of films like Blade Runner and applies them. Go and engage with life and the world! Don’t let them work you to the bone as though there is no past or future! In Moon, values are presented which can more readily be translated to real-life action than can those of its philosophical predecessors.

While venturing briefly into ideas on corporate ethics against individual or societal interests, and Jones sets up some chilling ideas (Sam’s rescue team consists of a commando with an assault rifle; a clean energy provider murders its genetically abused employees to improve profit margins and streamline workflow), such social entrepreneurial considerations play second fiddle. More important to Jones, it seems, is a positive message about life as an autonomous, dynamic, irrepressible force – running contrary to the Nietzschean horror of the Alien films. While the latter commit themselves to an idea of life as becoming through an amoral violation, hostility, voracious consumption and murder, Moon comes to the opposite conclusion: as life evolves toward integration with the artificial or synthetic, technologies are built toward biological mechanics and organic sympathy. It proposes that life may be a benevolent force, if we inject a moral code into its genetic becoming.

Moon4There are so many more ideas that Moon speaks to. We observe an encounter between a human and his mirror image, and the personal identity problems that throws up. What if there were several coterminous copies of you? Do you believe that if the other persists, you cannot die? This is eerily reminiscent of Reasons and Persons, and the Parfit / Williams dialectic on physical and psychological continuity. More interestingly, it unfolds into considerations of the experiences that these thought experiments entail. Would your instinct for self-preservation apply to copies of yourself? Would this instinct really be one of self-preservation, or something fraternal or paternal? Would it be an instinct at all? There is something strangely solipsistic about the frame of thought Moon leaves one in. A sort of monadal world (like when John Malkovich becomes John Malkovich)? Nevertheless, it is worth noting that Jones never forces such abstract philosophical considerations upon his audience. These are heavily read into the film. Moon itself has the simple elegance of a phenomenological account. Here is a study of Sam coping.

–END OF SPOILERS–

Frustratingly, some science fiction fans will ridicule the film’s technical ‘inaccuracies’. The sheer stupidity of this can distract from the intelligence and consistency of Moon. There is no point in testing the propositions of the fiction against our beliefs about the world. Why need they be consistent? These nerds need to learn to make-believe. Moon’s world is one of fiction, based on some scientific principles and some flights of imagination. It is made by a director who is clearly humble and terribly affectionate of cinema without the blind fervor of a bona-fide cinephile. His philosophical education shines through both in his ideas and his film-making integrity.

Moon5While Moon is a little tentative, it is a really exceptional piece of work. Rockwell’s performances are majestic. Gerty is delightful, with his charming emoticons and neutered psychotherapeutic drawl. There are well-executed semiotic systems (consider the early symbols for Sam’s frustrated abstinence). Clint Mansell’s electro-piano chamber music perfectly compliments a mood of anxiety. This is a return to great idea science-fiction, better than most of what has come out in recent years. And to think it is a British production made on a relatively tiny budget! (You would hardly notice it was made in Britain if it weren’t for amusing little appearances from Kaya Scodelario and Matt Berry). I just hope it’s R.O.I. multiple manages to smash massive-budget no-substance fare like Transformers 2.

 

Moon, Dir. & Writ. Duncan Jones, Writ. Nathan Parker, Star. Sam Rockwell, Liberty Films, UK, 2009
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Written by James P. Campbell

23/06/2009 at 23:55

One Response

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  1. Fantastic review, man – I completely agree with you. I loved the marriage of thoughtplay and storytelling that are so divided in more recent sci-fi CGI epic laser-athons.

    Also, massive lol on hearing Matt Berry in a straight role! All I could think of was “I’m Dr Sanchez…you’re a woman.”

    inthecityofsalt

    26/07/2009 at 22:46


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