The Rumpus Original Combo: Moon

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Science fiction of the best sort, in which technology exists as a means of peering into the soul, and where even the darkest problems can be overcome by human ingenuity and the inexplicable compassion and perseverance of the human spirit.

The Rumpus Review of Moon

by Catherine Roop

A good portion of my childhood was spent immersed in 1950s science fiction. I wasn’t born until 1985, to be sure — but my Dad had grown up at the tail end of the so-called “Golden Age” of science fiction, and it was his books that I stumbled across when I was learning to read, and it was his stories — of spacefaring, of nuts-and-bolts “hard” SF, of aliens and theoretical physics—that informed my juvenile fantasies and dreams. So it was with great anticipation and a twinge of premature nostalgia that I set out to watch Moon, a film that Roger Ebert proclaimed “a superior example of that threatened genre, hard science fiction, which is often about the interface between humans and alien intelligence of one kind of or other, including digital.”

Moon, director Duncan Jones’s feature debut, opens in the Sarang lunar base, where Lunar Industries employee Sam Bell watches over automated operations to extract helium-3 from the lunar soil. Bell, played by veteran indie actor Sam Rockwell, is nearing the end of his three-year contract to work the base, and looks forward to reuniting with his wife Tess and as-yet-unseen daughter, Eve. But as his return to Earth nears, Sam’s stay on the Moon becomes more and more troubled — until a series of hallucinations and a rover crash bring to light the terrible secrets the base hides.

While its minimal $5 million budget shows in the film’s limited casting and repetitive special effects, Moon triumphs as exploratory fiction that successfully captures the flesh and blood of science fiction — which isn’t, as Ebert says, the interface between human and alien intelligence, but rather comprises the distillation of humankind into its most elemental pieces. In this movie, as in most of the science fiction stories I’ve read, the whole point of the technology — its careful extrapolation, meticulous rendering, and cinematological prominence — is to force focus on humanity, as it’s stripped down, dislocated, and put at an adequate distance for us to examine it at its stress points.

If you’ve read or watched any science fiction in the past decade, you probably won’t be untowardly surprised by anything in the film. The ideas aren’t new — and that’s what makes the movie work. Rather than bombard the viewer with unbelievable “futuristic” accoutrements, the movie presents science that is mostly plausible, not so advanced as to appear magical, and solid in feel and appearance. The lonely helium-3 distillers that trundle through the lunar regolith are dirty and imperfect; the main character, Sam Bell, bleeds like a true mortal. Human input is still needed in this universe, and human cleverness is still capable of overcoming any obstacle that arises in its path. Technology surrounds, not as a force in its own right, but as a reflection of the people who shaped it. Gerty, the resident AI (voiced by Kevin Spacey), is no malevolent HAL, but a limited machine contrasted to the boundless potential of Sam Bell, who is ultimately the focus of the movie.

In this regard, I found Moon a welcome change from such recent television series as Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles and Eureka, which — although I enjoy them — tend to demonize technology as the source of more problems than it solves. In Moon, science is always in sight, but humans cause the problems, and humans solve them. Technology is neutral; it’s human nature that’s being judged, condemned, and ultimately redeemed.

Moon, then, is science fiction of the best sort, in which technology exists as a means of peering into the soul, and where even the darkest problems can be overcome by human ingenuity and the inexplicable compassion and perseverance of the human spirit. It reminds me of the stories that shaped me when I was child, the ones that make me believe in the indomitable core of humanity, despite the evils done upon one another by its individual members. That’s the science fiction I hold to heart, and that’s what Moon delivers.

The Rumpus Interview with Duncan Jones

by Jeremy Hatch

The morning after the West Coast première of Moon in San Francisco, at the Castro Theater last May, I had the chance to interview the director, Duncan Jones (pictured at left). If you Google Mr. Jones, the first two things you’ll learn is that 1) there’s a Welsh rugby player by the same name, and 2) the filmmaker’s father is David Bowie. This would be trivial if the resemblance weren’t so striking. While I was interviewing him, I kept thinking: “Wow, this guy looks just like David Bowie with a thin beard and fuzzy hair! He’s like a cuddly David Bowie!” It really wasn’t my finest moment as a journalist. However, we did discuss his creative process, some technical details behind the film, Sam Rockwell’s amazing performance, Moon‘s place in the history of science fiction films, and why character is far more important than special effects. But be warned if you haven’t seen it: the interview does contain spoilers.

The Rumpus: So, what got you started with this story? You’ve mentioned that you read about Helium-3 as an actual source of potential fuel, which made me wonder whether you started from a premise and worked from there.

Duncan Jones: I didn’t start with a premise so much as I started with a laundry list of the production’s requirements. I knew I had to keep my cast small, and I had a rough idea of what budget we’d be able to raise. I knew I wanted to shoot everything in studio, so that I’d have a controlled environment and I wouldn’t have to worry about moving between locations or the weather, and things like that. I knew I wanted to work with Sam Rockwell. So, I had this long list of criteria, fifteen or twenty items, before I’d even written a word of the story. And then it was a matter of just coming up with ideas, choosing the best ones, and working out how to maximize them. So the idea of involving cloning was a smart move because it was a cost-effective special effect: I could use Sam in multiple roles and keep our casting smaller. The same was true about our use of model miniatures, which I wanted to do on an aesthetic level anyway, but again, it also lent itself to lowered costs. So everything initially came together within these restrictions. But, you know, eventually you get to a point where the storytelling has to take over.

Rumpus: How did you know you wanted to work with Sam Rockwell?

Jones: Yes, I actually wrote the film specifically for him. I’d met up with him about three years ago to discuss another project, which didn’t ultimately work out. But we got on really well, and we started talking about the kind of films we both loved, and science fiction in general. So I started asking him about the kind of roles he’d like to play, because I wanted him in my first film, and I wanted to come up with something that he could do. And he told me a little bit about wanting to play a blue-collar guy. He wanted to do something like that, and we’d been talking about films like Silent Running, with Bruce Dern, and Outland, with Sean Connery. So I just said: “Listen, give me some time. If you can promise to read it, I’ll write something just for you.” And you know, he did. He agreed to read it, and about nine months later we got the script to him, and about three months after that he agreed to do it. And that was it.

Rumpus: You got quite a performance out of him — he’s playing himself, essentially, and he pulls it off so marvelously.

Jones: Yeah, it’s a hell of a responsibility for him, and it was tough for him too, because our schedule was something called a six-day-five-day, which is basically, you do a six-day week, and a five-day week, then a six-day week, and a five-day week. So you get a one-day weekend every other week, and we did that over 33 days. That’s not that unusual for independent films, but they were very, very exhausting working days anyway, because it was so technical. And for Sam, it was outrageously difficult, because normally, even when you do those kind of days on an independent film, normally you’re not the only actor performing and carrying the film. He was working every hour of every day, and if he wasn’t working he was up in makeup. You know, it was absolutely exhausting for him. But you know, I just love Sam. He’s such a wonderful guy, and I thank him so much for actually having the guts to do a role like that, and to do it with someone like myself who, as you know, is a first-time feature director. That’s a huge amount of trust to put in me.

Rumpus: I just learned that Rockwell went to high school about half a mile from where I live right now.

Jones: Yes! He told me he was a San Francisco boy. I finally got to meet his dad last night at the show!

Rumpus: That’s sweet! What do you think of the Castro Theatre?

Jones: It’s a fantastic place. You know, I’ve never been there before, and it was just wonderful. We had a sold-out crowd, a completely packed house. And the other nice thing is that the Castro has such a gigantic screen, and Sony Classics has been really eager to show the film on as many big screens as they can, because it’s very sumptuous visually. There is a lot to see.

Rumpus: One of the most obvious things about Moon is that it consciously pays homage to the sci-fi movies of a certain era, you know, and of course the character Gerty brings 2001 to mind. How consciously you were playing off of the expectations set by 2001?

Jones: In all honesty, other than Gerty, who obviously has a lineage straight to HAL, the rest of the film really reflects those later films that were referencing 2001Outland, and Silent Running, and Ridley Scott’s Alien.

Rumpus: I loved that  little in-joke, the way Sam had named a plant ‘Ridley.’

Jones: Yes, thank you! But you know, you see how it was really about those films that came after? Because 2001 was what, about 30, 35 years ago?

Rumpus: 1968.

Jones: And I was born in 1971. So it was a hell of a long time ago! And what we’re paying homage to, is the films that I was watching growing up, with the generation that came after 2001, which I think has influenced just about all science fiction one way or another. Even if it’s in reaction against it, you know, there’s always that influence – it always comes back to 2001.

Rumpus: Well, let me put the question this way. Even if people in the audience have not seen much sci-fi made in the interim — maybe they haven’t seen Silent Running or Outland, but they’ve certainly seen 2001. And when I went to a preview screening, you know, I was in a room with about thirty or forty other film people, and we’re all sitting there watching it, completely expecting Gerty to shut him down. You know what I mean?

Jones: Absolutely.

Rumpus: So when it doesn’t happen, although in retrospect it’s actually 100% predictable that Gerty would help him instead, because you have these expectations, it was kind of cathartic when that happens.

Jones: That was one of the things I wanted to do. There are certain expectations that people have from watching classic films, and yes, with Gerty in particular, I knew that everyone was going to bring baggage with them from HAL. And rather than try and pretend they wouldn’t, what I wanted to do was take that baggage and help use that to create a momentum where the audience already believes they know where it’s going. And then you can take it in a different direction.

Rumpus: To bring it back to the lo-fi effects — one of the things I really love about Moon is that it isn’t too effects-heavy. I get really turned off by over-the-top effects.

Jones: Well, they have their place. But I don’t think it’s ever clever, when a film is depending on its effects to be enjoyable.

Rumpus: That’s more what I mean. I guess I’m wondering if the limitations of the budget forced you to create a very human story.

Jones: Not quite. I mean, we didn’t have that temptation, or potential pitfall, because of the limitations of the budget, but the reason it’s the kind of story it is, is because those are the kind of science fiction films I miss. And to bring it back again to Outland, Silent Running, the original Alien — those movies were principally about people contending with a certain environment. Even Blade Runner, which is one of my favorite science fiction films, and looks gorgeous, is still about how the people are affected by the world they live in. It’s not so much about the technologies of that world — that’s secondary to the people.

Rumpus: While we’re on the topic of effects, I’m curious whether the secret room was a CGI effect.

Jones: No! I love that room. On the DVD we’ll put some stuff on there about that. We used the oldest trick in the book for that, which was a foreshortened set. Basically, that set was about 12 feet deep, and then, after 12 feet, the set disappeared into a cone. So, you could shoot it from certain angles, and as long as you did that —

Rumpus: It would look like it went on forever.

Jones: Yes. It just appears to go off far into the distance. And the cone must have been another 15 feet. All of those little doors and everything get smaller and smaller as they go down into the cone.

Rumpus: That was a fantastic scene, the two Sams standing there in disbelief — but in believing disbelief: “Why are there so many of them?”

Jones: Yeah. [Laughter]


Catherine Roop has a Bachelor’s degree in Biology and is pursuing a Master’s in English. She’s particularly interested in the intersection of science and the arts and has a small science fiction and fantasy art gallery on the web. Jeremy Hatch is the Rumpus Film Editor. More from this author →