(directed by Duncan Jones, 2009, now on DVD)
Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) has been on the dark side of the moon for three years. He is the sole inhabitant of a remote lunar base, cut off from live contact with Earth, supervising the machines which mine helium-3, a vital power-source for an overcrowded and exhausted planet. His sole companion is the base’s computer, Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey), who simulates moods by displaying a series of text-messaging emoticons. Sam has been sustained throughout his contract by video messages from his wife Tess and daughter Eve, and now he has only two weeks left before his contract ends and he can go home.
The film dwells on the tedium and loneliness of Sam’s life: his efforts to keep fit on the treadmill; his hobbies of building a model of his town and tending plants in a lunar greenhouse. But his prolonged isolation is beginning to take its toll. As the poster’s tagline promises, ‘950,000 miles from home, the hardest thing to face… is yourself’. This is a very smart piece of film-making and the vision it offers of the future is perhaps more plausible than the space-opera dog-fights or alien encounters we see in other sci-fi films. There is a simple elegance to it, and it’s a striking directorial debut from Duncan Jones.
If you haven’t seen the film, please stop there. Don’t read any more, just buy the DVD and savour it for yourself. Below I’ve had to include spoilers, because the story left me with certain thoughts and questions that I can’t really mention without giving away the plot.
Comparisons with 2001: Space Odyssey are obvious but unavoidable, and these comparisons work to the director’s advantage. By jumping to conclusions, I blinded myself to clues about what was actually going on. Kevin Spacey’s smooth, gentle voice even sounds like HAL and for the first half of the film I was convinced that, when something went wrong (as it surely would), Gerty would be behind it. When Sam awakes after an accident on the lunar surface, to find himself confined to quarters, and the external doors locked, I thought this was the beginning of a predictable man-versus-computer plot; and I was very glad to find that I was mistaken. Gerty, like HAL, has developed an independent intelligence, but that consciousness manifests itself in a very different way: as compassion for the men he has been created to serve. It’s only with Gerty’s help that the cycle can be broken.
The appearance of a second Sam (or, to be more accurate, the rediscovery of the first Sam) threw my expectations out of the window. I considered various options. Could this be an example of a radical multiple-personality disorder? Was Sam paranoid? Had he just been talking to himself too much? Or was this second man a member of the engineering rescue party, come to fix the damaged lunar rover, who Sam was seeing as an extension of himself? When I finally found out what was going on, it was unexpectedly moving. Sam realises that he is one of many clones of the original Sam Bell and that his ‘memories’ of his wife and child are false: just implants from the original Sam’s mind. The video messages are old recordings and the lack of a live link with Earth means that Sam has no way to demand answers from his company.
The scene where Gerty explains this to him was beautifully done, especially in the way the computer tries to comfort Sam: patting him on the back with a mechanical hand; sharing in his grief by displaying a weeping emoticon. Sam’s initial reaction is muted, which puzzled me; but then I understood that he simply can’t bring himself to believe it. Indeed, he doesn’t accept it until he manages to make phone contact with Earth, which gives him sudden, painful proof that Gerty is right; and then, already weak and drained, he more or less gives up. What is there left to live for? Fortunately his companion – let’s call him Sam 2 – realises that, having discovered the truth, they have the opportunity to improve things for the clones who will be activated in the future.
A film like this tantalisingly raises more questions than it answers. For example, why does the mining company go to such lengths to make its clones believe that they are real men with real futures? Why the video messages from Tess and Eve? Is it because even clones will work harder if they have dreams of a home to go back to? Are false hopes better than no hopes at all? As clones, do they have an existing set of memories and thoughts from the original Sam that can’t be erased – necessitating the perpetuation of the same fiction, over and over again, always starting from the same point? And am I right in thinking that the clones only have a three-year lifespan? Why else would there be so many of them lined up ready for activation? Is that the reasoning behind the three-year contract?
Certainly, Sam 1’s increasing weakness can’t just be explained by his accident in the lunar rover. It looks as though his body is breaking apart – and on that note I just have to say how clever I thought the contrast was, between the frail Sam 1 and the fresher, more robust Sam 2. That is partly due to the make-up team, but it’s mainly a testament to Sam Rockwell’s acting. I don’t think I’ve come across him before, but he makes a very good job of what is essentially a one-man show. Well done, too, to Duncan Jones for coming up with a sci-fi piece which is so intelligent and which holds the attention despite having (basically) one actor and a very limited set.
I wonder whether there was a source for the story? Just watching it, like this, it strikes me as the kind of plot that could have come straight from an Asimov short story.