4 Stars Movies

Solitary Confinement: Moon

Moon is a rare science fiction thriller that doesn’t derive its tension solely from the spectacle of spaceships, robots, or offworld locale. Rather, it’s a psychodrama about paranoia, in the Philip K. Dick tradition of Blade Runner, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly (not to mention the countless movies Dick indirectly inspired, such as Dark City, 12 Monkeys, and The Matrix). Moon’s futuristic trappings hide several onion layers of deeper themes: bioethics, torture, labor exploitation, and questioning the nature of the self and one’s perception of reality.

Director Duncan Jones (aka Zowie Bowie, son of David Bowie), shot Moon on an extraordinarily economical budget of $5 million, achieved largely by restricting production to soundstages and substituting practical miniatures for costly CGI. A beneficial side-effect is a pleasing tactility lacking in most contemporary sci-fi films, where entire characters and environments are now routinely virtual. As a beat-up rover slowly trundles across the uneven lunar surface, kicking up dust, bumping and rattling all the way, it feels real because it is.

Duncan Jones' Moon
Our circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong

As his character’s name Sam Bell implies, Jones conceived the role with Sam Rockwell in mind. Rockwell was great in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Matchstick Men, and is great here. He must hold the screen virtually alone for most of the film, and Jones was right to hype him for an Academy Award nomination.

Sam is a blue-collar miner and the sole occupant of a partially automated base dedicated to strip-mining the dark side of the moon for a compound needed back on earth for clean power. It may sound like technobabble but in fact the science is sound: Helium-3 is a real element believed to be plentiful on the moon and theoretically may someday provide a sustainable source of energy. But in the true sci-fi dystopian tradition, Sam’s employer Lunar Industries turns out to be as insidious as the Weylan-Utani corporation that exploits the Nostromo mining platform crew in Ridley Scott’s Alien.

Lunar Industries boasts of profitably saving the Earth’s environment by providing clean power on the cheap, made possible by engaging in practices that are arguably immoral but commonly accepted. The exploitation of cloned life is a direct parallel to today’s outsourcing of labor to developing countries with more lax human rights. If one wonders how a future society might be so inured to cloning that they would condone Sam’s servitude, media broadcasts overheard at the end of the film spill the beans: no, they don’t.

That is, if we’re optimistic and assume what he hear is real – it’s possible they’re the fantasy of a dying man imagining his moral victory. But perhaps it’s like how many in the western world live now; we enjoy affordable consumer electronics and clothing manufactured by workers that literally live inside their factories, and don’t ask why our purchases don’t cost more. Jones told Suicide Girls [update: link no longer available] that Moon is the first part in a projected trilogy, so perhaps we will see prequels or sequels that flesh out a world where human cloning is a fact of life.

Sam’s madness and physical deterioration is partially explained within the science fiction context as a result of the inherent instability of cloned life. Apparently, like early experiments with animals like Dolly the sheep in 1996, clones are more prone to disease, organ failure, and premature death. Dolly survived about half the normal lifespan for a sheep. Like the “replicants” in Blade Runner, these clones come with built-in expiration dates. But then, don’t we all? While Blade Runner‘s Dekker comes to terms with his true nature through escape, Sam instead chooses to confront.

Sam Rockwell in Duncan Jones' Moon
I am obligated to make a lame “Sam I Am” joke somewhere in this review, so here it is.

Discovering he is merely a commercial product with inbuilt obsolescence is just one of Sam’s problems. His quarters and workspace look like they might have once been as clean and white as 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s Discovery One vessel, or at least the inside of an Apple Store, but have long since become stained and soiled with the filth and grit of the many Sams that came before him. Also like the Discovery One astronauts, Sam periodically receives prerecorded video messages beamed from earth. These asynchronous conversations are not unlike email, and a poor substitute for real human interaction.

You don’t have to look far for a metaphor: the common practice of solitary confinement is increasingly recognized as a form of torture. The harrowing New Yorker article “Hellhole” by Atul Gawande recounts how a psychologically stable person can go mad in a matter of weeks or even days without human contact. We first meet Sam three years into his tour of duty.

Sam’s interactions with the base’s computer GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) are likewise reduced to the rudiments of online communication; its “face” is comprised of happy/sad/neutral emoticons. GERTY is a rarity in science fiction: a compassionate example of artificial intelligence. Countless movies (including 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, Wargames, The Terminator, I Robot, et al.) have trained us to expect artificial intelligences to be inherently evil or, at least, dangerously unstable. But GERTY is more like David (Haley Joel Osment) in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet, or Wall-E: an artificial creation that rigidly follows its programming, but whose parameters allow it to exhibit genuine compassion and caring for its charge.

Kevin Spacey in Duncan Jones' Moon

I loved the movie overall, but was disappointed by the lack of ambiguity in its storytelling. The trailer reveals more than I would have liked to know if I had watched the movie cold, and the movie itself reveals its secrets very early by quickly dropping the word “clone.” Would it have been more interesting had there been hints of a possibility that Sam might be delusional, hallucinating a clone, and was in fact alone the whole time? Maybe I’ve been conditioned by too many Twilight Zone episodes, Fight Club, and M. Night Shyamalan movies, but I anticipated a twist ending that never came.

I’ve touched on several of Moon‘s more obvious inspirations, but I’m also reminded of Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris remake, in which a clone-like creature murders his original. Cloning is just beginning to enter the zeitgeist, having recently figured into the braindead actioner The Island but also the more contemplative Never Let Me Go, based on the highly regarded novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. Clones may very well prove to be the next zombies or vampires.


The 8 Best Movies I Saw in 2007

Why only 8? Because I’m a philistine and haven’t yet seen many of 2007’s most acclaimed films (look for a post on that subject later). So here they are, in alphabetical order, and isn’t it a happy coincidence Blade Runner starts with a “B”:

Blade Runner


It may be a bit of a stretch to include Blade Runner here, but a new cut released in theaters during 2007 ought to count, and hey, it’s my damn list. The classic has been eye-poppingly restored and is now finally definitive after a long history of compromised releases. But with Ridley Scott slinging spoilers around in interviews, and some new plot clarifications made to the film itself, it’s a pity to lose some of the wonderfully maddening ambiguity fans have cherished for decades. “Deckard might be and probably is a replicant” is a lot more intriguing than “Deckard is definitely a replicant and always has been.” But Blade Runner is still one of the most timeless, gorgeous, and influential movies ever made.

The Darjeeling Limited

Not just my new favorite Wes Anderson film, but also a new favorite overall. I understand that Anderson’s mannered style is not everyone’s cup of darjeeling (sorry), and that he may seem to be simply repeating himself in both style and content. But I found The Darjeeling Limited hilarious and genuinely moving, even though I’m an only child and often can’t really sympathize with sibling stories.

Hot Fuzz


A hysterically funny mashup of all the best & worst action movies ever made (but mostly The Wild Bunch and, why not, The Wicker Man), that also somehow manages to be charming and even a little heartwarming. OK, you might ask, but why does this deserve a spot on a “Best Of” list? One of the entries on my forthcoming “Worst Of” list will illustrate how badly this project could have gone off the rails.



It’s got it all, homeskillet: cracking good dialogue, casting perfection, and a good heart. All the social conservatives that cried victory when “Hollywood” released a movie in which a young woman does not have an abortion missed the greater miracle: here’s a movie with believably rich characters of all ages, incomes, and genders, and it’s not even about abortion in the first place.

No Country for Old Men


The Coen Brothers toss narrative convention out the window — no, wrong cliche. How about: The Coen Brothers drag narrative convention out into the desert, gut-shoot it, and leave it for dead. Even though I haven’t read the original novel, this is perhaps one of the most novelistic movies I’ve ever seen.

The Orphanage


A modern ghost story with dignity and class, The Orphanage nearly scared me into a coronary. And it does it all without gore and CG. OK, yes, there is a little of each, but still. (full disclosure: I work for the distribution company, and designed the official movie site)



It’ll be hard to write this paragraph without hyperbole, but Ratatouille is one of the more perfect movies I’ve ever seen, period. I’m hard-pressed to remember any other movie that literally squeezed tears of pure delight out of me, and director Brad Bird is a genius. That’s all I have to say.

There Will Be Blood


Commandingly confident direction, powerfully staged action, political relevance at once clear and unspoken, stunningly intense acting, and a hair-raising score. And if all that isn’t enough, it’s also blessed with the best movie title… maybe ever?

Honorable mentions:

  • Apocalypto (yes, really!)
  • Atonement
  • Beowulf (for Neil Gaiman’s and Roger Avery’s ballsy script, not the flawed animation)
  • Breach (for Chris Cooper’s performance)
  • The Host (comparable to Jaws, and way better than Cloverfield)
  • The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
  • Sunshine

Coming up in a day or two: The 9 Worst Movies I saw in 2007!

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