The best science fiction stories are those that look far out in order to examine what lies deep within. They gaze out to the farthest reaches of the cosmos and in doing so give us a glimpse at the limitless space that exists inside each one of us, and inside humanity as a whole. At its greatest, sci-fi is a core of resonant introspection wrapped and festooned with a dazzling filigree. It is a sad reality, however, that too often those shiny surface trappings can be mistaken for substance, and the genre is littered with works that think that if you crowd a story with spaceships and aliens and energy weapons then something profound will manifest. Vacuous dross like Avatar or the Ghost in the Shell remake are full of shiny baubles and failed overtures at meaning. There’s nothing wrong with a fun, frothy spectacle of course—The Fifth Element would like a word with anyone that says different—but science fiction holds an incredible potential for profundity, and when it reaches that potential, really special things can happen. When style and substance work together, the genre takes flight. Stalker, Solaris, Blade Runner—all gripping tales told in exotic and speculative worlds, but backed up by big ideas that care to explore such things as consciousness, existentialism, and the dangers of corporate overreach. Without those ideas, these aren’t works for the ages. To put it another way: Glittering C-beams are great, and they help get the point across, but they aren’t themselves the point.
This kind of original, big-idea sci-fi is occasionally thought to be somewhat of a forgotten art form in the current era of cheap CGI dominance and studio-mandated movie-universe sprawl. But for those who care to look, there are treasures to be found. We recently saw the trailer for the mysterious Duncan Jones movie, Mute. A neo-noir set in a near-future Berlin, Mute is, according to Jones, a spiritual successor to his 2009 movie, Moon (and maybe-sorta the middle part of a maybe-sorta potential trilogy). The level of anticipation you should have for Mute will be the result of a complex equation that can be boiled down to: How much of a ‘Moon Duncan Jones’ movie will this be, and how little of ‘Source Code or World of Warcraft Duncan Jones’ will there be in it? That is not to hate on the patchy but just-good-enough Source Code, or World of Warcraft (which I haven’t seen but which our own esteemed Professor Wilson was a fan of), but when it comes to Duncan Jones’ thus far quite short filmography, Moon towers above its companions.
For those who aren’t familiar with it, Moon is set in 2035. In this movie future, we have already passed through the energy crisis that is looming on our own very real horizon. At some point we started mining helium-3 from the lunar soil, and this has provided a cheap and efficient means of clean energy, helping to power society back on Earth. The movie never shows us the Earth from any closer a perspective than the Moon, and so at no point do we really see just what kind of society there exists now on our blue-green home. This is Moon’s best—and quite Marxist—innovation: Instead of focusing on and fetishising the glossy and pristine-looking future that we might have built, it looks to the worker who is making that future possible. It zeroes in on his day-to-day existence, and on the emotional and physical toll his labour takes on him. The vast majority of the mining work on the Moon is done by automated machines, but it still needs human supervision. It is a cold and lonely existence.
The second best innovation was Duncan Jones’ casting of Sam Rockwell. Jones wrote the part specifically for Rockwell, and it shows. Sam Rockwell is an excellent actor with oodles of charisma and charm, but oftentimes that effervescent demeanour can make you forget how much depth he can bring to a role. He is at his best when balancing a devilish grin with a resonant pathos (see The Way Way Back or Snow Angels). Moon’s script gives us exactly that, and it allows Rockwell to stretch himself fully as an actor. It’s no secret by now that the plot in this movie revolves around Rockwell’s character (Sam Bell) discovering that despite appearances he is nowhere near as alone in his lunar exile as he thinks he is. I won’t say anymore here because the movie is still enjoyed best with minimal information, but suffice it to say that Lunar Industries, the corporation that runs the base that Sam is stationed on, has—in the tried and tested corporate way—figured out a highly unethical yet efficient way to cut down on operating costs. Sam believes he is up on the Moon for a three year term, and that when that time is up he will be returning home to his wife and small child. He has sporadic recorded-video contact with them, and he is counting down the days until they are reunited. It is what keeps him going. Little does he know that the sporadic, fragmented nature of his communication with Earth is manufactured by the powers-that-be, and that rather than being the unique and valuable worker supervising cold, unfeeling lunar machinery that he is told he is, he is in fact just another cog in that machinery. The movie recounts Sam’s accidental discovery of the truth, and the emotional and practical consequences that follow.
Duncan Jones shot Moon on a small self-contained stage in England, on a limited budget ($5 million), with a minimal cast, in just over a month, and this intimacy informs the entire project. I said earlier that the best sci-fi often uses grand scales and vistas to explore its themes, but Moon flips this on its head a little bit. Yes it’s set in the future and on the natural silver satellite orbiting the Earth, but it explores its ideas through the eyes and limited perspective of just one man (well…). His day-to-day routine, his hopes and dreams, his feelings—these are the things around which the plot revolves. Compared to a lot of science fiction, that could be seen as quite small. Naturally, as the plot progresses, the horizon expands, and bigger things are addressed. Identity, fate, the dangers of unregulated capitalism. Moon isn’t afraid of tackling weighty matters, and it does so with aplomb—but by never forgetting Sam it remains a very humanistic and down to earth movie.
I fear I might’ve described Moon in such a way so as to make it sound a bit ponderous. It’s not. Despite its often quiet and contemplative nature, it is a fundamentally gripping and enthralling story. It’s shot through with echoes of the mystery and psychological thriller genres, and at just over 90 minutes it moves at a brisk pace. It’s absolutely gorgeous to look at too. Instead of relying on CGI, Jones desired to create as many of the visual effects as possible using miniatures, and watching Moon makes you wish that more filmmakers felt that urge. The models have a weight and charm that computer generated imagery just cannot replicate (yet, at least). The soundtrack too, by Clint Mansell (Requiem for a Dream), is excellent. It’s haunting, and thematically and emotionally evocative.
It might sometimes feel like there is a dearth of good, idea-driven sci-fi around these days. That it’s a dusty corner which filmmakers aren’t interested in exploring anymore. But Duncan Jones’ Moon is one of the many examples that puts the lie to that. It’s a devastating, beautiful treasure, and if you love science fiction you need to do yourself a favour and seek it out. It is a wonderful marriage of style and substance.