To begin with a claim: since the release of The Matrix in 1999, there has been a disturbing lack of intelligent science fiction films coming out of the best minds and eyes in Hollywood. Why is this? One wonders, sometimes, if the ebbs and flows of the most nerdy of genres doesn’t have something to do with human desire and curiosity. Sci-fi, as a collection of musings about the future (that, to be sure, have ultimately to do with the here and now), often acts as an illustration of human beings’ hopes for a better tomorrow, usually realized through the presence of increasingly capable technologies. As these technologies manifest in the real (haha) world, there is perhaps some down time as the creative mind recharges and imagines new problematics and quandaries on the technological and human (and not necessarily earth-bound) horizon.
Questions raised within the popular corners of the genre in the 1990s, then, for example, become increasingly part of the fabric of everyday life; concerns about virtual reality raised in The Matrix work themselves out in the everyday worlds of Second Life, World of Warcraft, and commonplace internet interactions. We work through concerns about identities both virtual and “real” (Blade Runner, Existenz, The Matrix, etc.) every day now, as we construct identities and personalities through our facebooks, our tweets, our chat rooms, whatever. In the 2000s, questions previously theoretical and artistic have become widespread and practical, solutions leaving the paper and celluloid behind to enter your fingertips.
Sci-fi, then, perhaps just needs to recharge its theoretical batteries in order to face the next round of technological concerns. In the meantime, popular sci-fi spectacles of the oughts (Terminator 3, Transformers) trade introspection and pacing for fast-paced action and visual spectacle (if it sounds like I am against this, I am not; well, maybe I am, but I realize that it’s kind of lame and elitist to decry the popularity of films like the new Star Trek while celebrating Blade Runner, which relies just as much on visceral spectacle). The increasing ease and low costs of CGI visuals have allowed some breathing room for the mind, perhaps.
One senses, though, that the pendulum may be about to swing for sci-fi, back from the explosions and vivisections, forth into the slow-moving musings. At the business end of this new movement is Moon, directed by Duncan Jones (as you probably know by now, son of Space Oddity writer and performer David Bowie). The film deals with the workaday troubles faced by Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell, in an appropriately lauded performance) as he toils in a one-man station on the dark side of the moon, mining gas for the Earth’s fusion reactors. He is aided only by GERTY (Kevin Spacey, doing his best HAL impression), the computer/robot who glides around the station on tracks in the ceiling, expressing emotion via a screen of emoticons. Bell’s on a three-year contract, and, well, one can imagine what being alone on the dark side of the moon with nobody but a robot and delayed video messages to keep you company would do to one’s head. Bell starts to get a little wonky, and, well, enter the plot of the film, which I will not get into here. Suffice it to say that the next round of human concerns have started to find expression in the genre that looks forward.
So what, then, is the concern of Moon? I would argue that the underlying concern at work here is the effect(s) of increasingly cheap technology on corporate thinking in an age of environmental uncertainty. I realize that sounds like bullshit, but to get more specific would ruin the film for everyone. Jones does a good job of keeping these concerns buried inside the plot. He never gets preachy or obvious, trite or angry. The effects of corporate thinking appear onscreen in subtle ways: the strips torn out of the moon by mining vehicles, the bland working environment that is defaced by Bell in an effort to keep sane, the branding of every available surface and outfit.
Much has been made of the look of this film, particularly with regards to this bland mise-en-scène. The environments are not evocative and shocking in the way that they are in a film like Blade Runner or Star Wars; instead, Jones has opted for the clean, modern look of films like 2001 and Brazil (different approaches there, I know, but he uses both), with much of the same intent, I would argue. However, as much of his film is an homage to these films that have come before, the whole thing feels familiar to the point of being nearly banal. This is either disappointing or perfect. It’s disappointing because we’ve all seen it before, and we may be getting tired of the impulse to imitate influences. It’s perfect because, well, doesn’t your office feel banal, too?
Perhaps I am placing unfair expectations on this film; it’s a first effort for Mr. Jones, and it is solid. The film, though, feels undercooked, in the end. Part of this is due to the film’s length. 97 minutes feels both too short to work through the problems at issue, and too quickly-paced for the weight of the questions which Moon raises. It also feels a little underdone because of the endless direct and indirect references to sci-fi of the past, including, but not limited to: 2001, Outland, Blade Runner, Solaris, and Alien(s). Moon raises important questions, but in the end, does not give them quite enough room or context to breathe and move on their own. However, it is well-made, well-acted, and a step in the right direction for a genre that, as of late, has been struggling to be more than an action spectacle, at least on the big screen. It is worth seeing and worth thinking about as we all move forward into the uncertain future of our planet and ourselves.