Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Alone on the dark side of "Moon"

A few weeks ago I had posted a positive post about the movie "Moon". Here is now an opinion/review piece that I wrote with Kevin Anderson (he teaches film at UMass). It was in yesterday's Daily Hampshire Gazette (however, one needs a subscription to read it). Here is the full article:

Alone on the dark side of "Moon"

July 20th will mark the 40th anniversary of the first Moon landing. After a long absence, there is a renewed interest in returning to the Moon - perhaps to establish a permanent outpost. If the Apollo program of the 1960s was driven largely by the desire to win the space race with the Soviet Union, the current push has commercial benefits at the forefront, from mining the lunar surface to the possibility of space tourism.

But as we prepare for a permanent presence on another terrestrial body, we must carefully look at the implications of our explorations - both on the Moon and on its human inhabitants.

"Moon," a film strategically released a month before the anniversary of the lunar landing, continues in the tradition of using alien environments to raise ethical implications of our actions and to explore the nature of being human. The movie is set in the near future on a remote mining station, Sarang Lunar Outpost, located on the dark side of the Moon.

In the movie, Sam Bell (played by Sam Rockwell) is the only occupant of this outpost and is just a few weeks from the end of his three-year contract. He has been given a companion on the base: a robot named Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey) - a clear homage to HAL 9000 from 2001. Gerty is there to help and take care of Sam, which includes cutting his hair, nursing his wounds and being a companion. Gerty has been programmed to express the semblance of emotions by displaying a limited range of comically simple facial expressions on his computer screen. Nevertheless, after his prolonged isolation, Sam appears to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Sam's work is relatively simple and monotonous: oversee the automated mining of helium-3 from the Moon's surface and its exportation back to Earth, where, it is suggested, helium-3 serves as a clean energy source. Exploring the likelihood and technical challenges associated with the mining of helium-3 could be an interesting theme in and of itself for a science fiction film. "Moon," however, delves deeper.

The barren landscapes in Moon, both exterior and interior, allow writer-director Duncan Jones to create a meditation on loneliness and explore the psychological toll it may extract from humans.

The cerebral focus of "Moon" gives it intrigue and relevance. Current research on long-term space travel has been concerned with the psychological impact of isolation: plans for a trip to Mars would take at least a year and a half. While not technically alone, a crew of five or six may have to spend this time either confined to their spacecraft in transit or exploring the red planet, a hundred million miles away.

Indeed, in order to understand the psychological and physiological demands of being in an enclosed environment for such an extended period, the European Space Agency's Directorate of Human Spaceflight is undertaking a cooperative project with the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow called the Mars500 program. The first phase, started this March, has isolated six crew-members for 105 days. This will be followed by a full 520-day study starting later this year.

"Moon," however, is not about exploration: Sam is a solitary cosmic laborer, not an explorer. His tasks on the Moon are not the stuff of scientific innovation nor will they be worthy of celebration. Sam is caught, in more ways than one, in a mundane, repetitive existence.

His sole purpose is to keep an eye on the machines that harvest helium-3. In many ways, we can consider him an emotionally intelligent robot, not that much different from Wall-E. Considering the monotonous and routine nature of Sam's existence, along with Gerty's ability to project emotions, begs a few questions: Does interpersonal communication require "persons"? And, further, who's keeping whom company - Sam or Gerty?

In subtle ways, "Moon" raises ethical questions regarding the use of sentient - though synthetic - beings for the exclusive benefit of humanity. Perhaps predictably, the actions of the helium-3 energy company and its exploitation of labor become a target in the film. Where a lesser film would have descended into a long morality lesson, "Moon" manages to entangle these issues with intriguing questions about what makes us human.

At one point in the film, Sam's solitude is shaken by an apparent encounter with a slightly younger and more sullen version of himself. Unlike the pedantic encounter between the two Spocks in the new "Star Trek" feature, the interaction between the two Sams is intelligent and seems to be asking the question, "If you were to encounter yourself somewhere, would you like yourself?"

The tempered rhythm and contemplative narrative places "Moon" in the footsteps of such thought-provoking sci-fi films as "2001," "Solaris" and "Blade Runner."

As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landings, humanity is poised to take a step towards a permanent presence on another terrestrial body - Moon, Mars or even some of the asteroids. In the tradition of envelope-pushing sci-fi, "Moon" brings us back to Earth and forces us to look at the implications of our explorations.

Salman Hameed is an assistant professor of integrated science and humanities at Hampshire College. Kevin Taylor Anderson is a lecturer in anthropology and film studies at the University of Massachusetts.

Here is the trailer again:


Atif Khan said...

Nice review...

Anonymous said...

Another excellent sci-fi film that explores similar issues (like space isolation and human interaction with robots) is "Silent Running"

Salman Hameed said...

Aha. "Silent Running". Actually, Duncan Jones explicitly mentioned it as an influence in making "Moon". I just recently saw it. But I must say - that it hasn't aged well. I mean, the movie and the story is good. But the environmental message is really hammered through. And...Joan Baez songs didn't help the cause :)
Sorry...I know it is good, but the Baez soundtrack was a bit hard to take in 2009.

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