Friday, January 28, 2011

Film Friday: Moon (2009)

Moon is a lost opportunity. It’s not a bad film and you will probably enjoy it, but it could have been so much more. Why? Because Moon centers around a twist that gets exposed early in the film, and rather than explore any of the large number of interesting consequences of that twist, the film just spends the rest of its run time telling you what you already knew about the twist.

** heavy spoiler alert **

Before we begin, let me state very clearly that to discuss this film requires me to delve into the twist and how it’s resolved. So if you haven’t seen the film, go see it first, then come back and comment. . . always comment! ;-)

Moon is the story of Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell -- Galaxy Quest), an employee of LUNAR, a company that provides 70% of the Earth’s energy needs. LUNAR does this by mining the moon for helium-3. Sam is the sole operator of the moon base that overseas the mining operation. Watching over Sam is GERTY 3000, the base’s computer (voiced by Kevin Spacey).

As Sam nears the end of his three year contract, he is injured in an accident. Shortly thereafter, we discover the twist -- Sam is a clone, and doesn’t know it. We discover this when a second Sam is awakened to take the place of the injured one, who is presumed dead. He then discovers Sam 1 and the two Sams try to figure out what is going on. Soon they learn there are hundreds of frozen Sams in the basement.

As plot twists go, this is pretty good. And in line with what I’ve said before about good twists, this twist is organic to the story, i.e. it doesn’t feel tacked on. That's good. But ultimately, this twist feels flat because the film fails to exploit it. Indeed, making the Sams aware of each other creates fertile ground for some pretty interesting storytelling, but Moon fails to addresses any of the issues that raises. Instead, the film spends the next hour reminding you over and over of the twist. Specifically, the two Sams spend their time slowly figuring out things you already knew from the twist itself. For example, they discover the other Sams, that original Sam went back to Earth, that their communications with Earth are artificially jammed by the company, that the used Sams are eliminated, that GERTY knows the truth, and that the company will kill them if the company discovers they have met. But none of this is the least bit surprising. How else could such an operation be handled? If you ship the Sams from Earth, then what would be the point in sending clones, i.e. where are the cost savings? If GERTY didn’t know, how could it wake the new Sams? If the communications weren’t jammed, how could the company maintain the information blackout? None of this is a revelation or all that interesting.

What would have been interesting would have been to follow up on any of the numerous issues raised by the twist itself. For example:

(1) What am I? This is a classic science fiction question. What does it do to your self-image/understanding to suddenly realize you’re a clone or that you have a clone? These are fertile areas for an examination of the self, i.e. what makes us who we are or what makes us human (see, e.g. Blade Runner). But Moon doesn’t go into that. Instead, Sam 1 half-heartedly refuses to believe he’s a clone for some time and then acts like a spoiled child, while Sam 2 acts kind of bored.

(2) Can two clones get along? Would two identical clones get along? Or would they hate each other? Would we really like ourselves once we saw a live, third-person version of ourselves? Heck, would we even recognize ourselves (other than physically of course)? Again, Moon doesn’t tell us. Indeed, despite being the only two people on this very small moon base and being thrown into the middle of something monumental, they barely interact with each other, even after they realize the company is likely sending people to kill them.

(3) How will GERTY 3000 (read: HAL 9000) react? 2001 has fascinated the world for forty years because we want to understand why HAL did what he did. GERTY is given the perfect moment for an existential crisis: his programming is to “protect Sam,” but now he’s confronted with multiple Sams with conflicting interests. Who does he choose? How does he decide? Again, Moon takes the easy way out and GERTY never sees a conflict.

(4) What’s does the company do now? The company spent billions of dollars setting up this elaborate hoax. What will the company do when it discovers the Sams uncovered their hoax? What are their options, how do they resolve that decision? We don’t know. Moon takes the easy way out and finds a reason the company doesn’t know the Sams have met.

(5) What about the moral questions? What are the moral implications for the company? What are the moral implications for the real Sam Bell, who let the company clone him and use the clones in this way? Because of him, these Sams think they have a wife and daughter. Presumably, both he and the company knew the clones would be killed after three years, is that wrong? Do the Sams have a responsibility to the Sams in the basement? Are they even alive yet as they haven’t woken up? And if the awake Sams don’t owe anything to the frozen Sams, what does that say about the company’s responsibility to the awake Sams? There is much here to consider, any of which would have added significant depth to this film. But Moon glosses over all of it.

In the end, Moon is a film with a neat twist and a lot of potential. The plot is strong enough to be entertaining. The atmospherics are good (kind of like Solaris). The effects are great -- models, not CGI. The soundtrack is pretty good too, very standard Clint Mansell. But the film could have been so much more. This film could have been Blade Runner meets 2001 meets Outland, but it never dreamed big enough. Some of the critics complained about the lack of action, but it wasn’t action this film needed, it needed depth and vision. It needed to address the issues it teed up. . . but it didn’t.

And that’s why even though this was a good film, it was a totally disappointing film too.

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CrispyRice said...

I've actually seen this! I thought it was pretty obscure, LOL.

While watching it, I always had a feeling like I was waiting for something... something ominous... something big! But it never came.

I kept waiting for the happy face on Gerty to turn into an angry face all of a sudden.

I also kept thinking, wouldn't it have just been easier and way cheaper to send people up and down for 9 - 12 month shifts? Why do all this?

But on the whole, I did enjoy it.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, That's kind of how I felt, and I think the failures I identify are the reason. They give you a great set up and you're waiting for it to pay off. . . but it never does. Instead, they just keep explaining the twist.

Like you, I thought it was enjoyable, but could have been a lot better.

I too kept waiting for GERTY to go crazy or something. And I think that would have helped the story if he had.

In terms of the dollar amounts, the fact they can send a crew to fix the harvester actually creates a huge plot whole. If it's cheap enough to send people up to fix a broken harvester, then it has to be cheap enough to send people up every couple years instead of going through the whole clone replacing clone process. But I think that can be overlooked for the sake of the story.

AndrewPrice said...

Whoops, make that "plot hole"... typo.

CrispyRice said...

Totally - I wanted Gerty to blow, LOL!




Doesn't Sam get in touch with the daughter on the planet as well? I would have liked to have seen explored as well. Did the original Sam even know? What would the daughter think? Personally, I'd be hard pressed to ignore the fact that 1000 clones of my dad were floating around in a space station, yanno?

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, Excellent question. I think that would have made the movie a lot more interesting. Did original Sam tell his daughter? What does she think? How would she react to meeting one or more copies of her father when he was younger? How would Sam react? Did he know? Etc.

I think the characters were very weak the way they were written because the story tried to be so narrow, so that almost nothing outside of the moon base was relevant to them. I think that was a mistake. In fact, I felt the whole relationship with the wife was very cardboard. It never once struck me that Sam really cared about her. He went through the motions, but it was hard to feel any real connection.

I think expanding the movie to get into Sam's relationships would have been a good move story-wise.

Unknown said...

Andrew: As much as I liked the movie, like you, I felt they didn't sufficiently flesh it out. I also think that Sam Rockwell is one of the most underrated actors in movies today.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I think we saw the film. It was good, but flat and could have been so much more if they'd dug into the whole issue deeper.

I agree about Rockwell, he's very good. I actually didn't realize at first he was the same guy who was in Galaxy Quest -- great role! "Guy".... "I don't even have a last name!!"

LL said...

I saw the movie as well (limited release) and enjoyed it. The problem with feature films is that they bang up against that 2 hour limit. Developing super complex plots often require super complex resolutions for the viewing audience with the 8th grade education. So there is a limit to how much they can pack into it.

While I agree with everyone's comments, I still enjoyed the movie.

Ed said...

Good review! Excellent analysis of what's wrong with this film. I think I felt like everyone else when I saw it, it was a good movie but I kept waiting for something more. I think what I was waiting for was something like what you mention, something that gives you something to think about.

I definitely was waiting for Gerty to go crazy or something. It felt like that they were building to that, but it never came. I also wondered how the daughter would have reacted and I wanted to see old Sam meet the clone Sams.

You ask an interesting question too, is it murder to kill these clones? I thought the company was killing them at the end of their three years, when they go in the pods, and it struck me that was murder.

Another good review.

AndrewPrice said...

LL, That's true and is always a consideration, there are clearly limits of how deep/complex you can get in a film.

But in this case, I think they had more than enough time to go a good deal deeper or get more complex. Indeed, I actually thought that a lot of what happened had the feel of filler waiting for the ending to spring a second surprise.

So while I agree that there definitely are limits, I don't think this film ever came close to testing those limits.

Moreover, as a quasi-"art film", I think they could have pushed the normal limits a good deal, but they didn't.

Nevertheless, as I've said, and as you say too, I did enjoy the film and I think it's worth seeing. The plot is good enough, the acting is solid, the effects are great, and the whole film is just worth seeing -- though I do think it could have been dramatically improved with just a little more depth.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, Thanks! Whether or not this would be murder is an interesting question. It had the feel of it, but they didn't really explore that. At one point, I thought maybe the Sams were designed to expire naturally after three years -- like the Replicants in Blade Runner, but that wasn't clear. I thought that because Sam 1 starts falling apart. It could be the result of injuries from his accident, but it seemed like more than that. But then the pod sequence made me wonder if I hadn't read that wrong and they were actually just killing the old clones? I'm not sure.

As I say in response to LL, I really did like the film, but it disappointed me that it was so shallow of a film. It felt like a lot of the action was just filler waiting for something to happen. I think they could have replaced that with an exploration of a deeper set of issues.

I would honestly like to see this film remade to add some of those issues.

Ed said...

A remake could be pretty good. I wonder if someone asked the writer/director how they would change the film (if at all), would they come up with some of these things or would they stand pat?

I thought it was murder. I got the sense the Sams went crazy around the end of their three year shifts, but the only one who seemed to fall apart was Sam 1. I didn't see any of the prior Sams on the film falling apart physically. So I think they just tricked them into the tube and then froze.

Doc Whoa said...

I'll go against the grain here. I didn't like the film. I thought the story just dragged and the acting was flat.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I think a remake would be a great idea. And it would be interesting to see if they would want to add something now, if they had the chance to remake it. I'm not sure that's the kind of question Hollywood reporters typically ask.

In terms of the Sams, we didn't see enough to know. We just saw enough to see them all looking kind of ragged, worn out, and a little cabin-feverish.

AndrewPrice said...

Doc, I can't say you're wrong, but I did enjoy the film on its own merits -- though I think it could have been better.

LL said...

I wonder what sort of budgetary restraints were in place here, with this film?

AndrewPrice said...

LL, The budget was an incredibly small $5 million -- which really impresses me that they were able to turn out such a professional looking film, and makes me wonder why Hollywood has to spend $100 million to achieve similar results? (Moon was filmed in England.)

I've seen where the director said he had to keep the cast small and couldn't create a lot of sets because of the budget, so that's a definite constraint. But I don't think that would have prevented them from exploring most of the issues raised above -- except for the on Earth scenes perhaps -- because most of it could have been done just with dialog changes.

Still, it is a valid point that they couldn't have done anything too grandiose.

DUQ said...

I like this film. I thought Rockwell did a great job as Sam. I thought the film had a good mystery feel to it. I liked the effects. I give it a thumbs up.

Ed said...

Five million dollars is nothing today. You could barely rent 1/4 of George Clooney for that! That really is incredible. For $5 million, they produced more believable effects than anything in the hundred-billion-trillion dollar Star Wars prequels!

AndrewPrice said...

DUQ, I liked the film, I just thought it could be a lot better.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, Good point. Lucas spent a fortune to create a world in the three prequels that is about as unrealistic as anything I've ever seen. He could have learned a lot of Moon's special effects team!

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

I haven't seen Moon but I now plan to.
BTW, Galaxy Quest rocks! Outstanding flick! It's good to see "Guy" getting bigger gigs. :^)

AndrewPrice said...

USS Ben, Please let me know what you think after you see it! :-)

I LOVED Galaxy Quest! As a lifelong Star Trek fan, I laughed so hard at the whole movie. Plus, it had a great heart and great acting. I particularly like Alan Rickman! LOL!

And yeah, it's good to see Guy get more roles!

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Aye! Alan Rickman really nailed his character, lol.
Tony Shalhoub also was great!

I liked how they went beyond the parody and had an actual compelling story, which made the funny parts even more hilarious IMO. I won't go on too much until you review this flick. :^)

AndrewPrice said...

All right Ben, I'll review it! But I think you're right, the strength of the film was that it was a real story with real characters, not just parody!

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Thanks Andrew!
I'll put my honeydo list on hold when that happens, lol.

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