Sam Rockwell standing in a Moon base, wearing an astronaut's jumpsuit. Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Movie Review: Moon (2009) ****

In Moon, Sam Bell is an astronaut solely responsible for mining helium3 from the titular Moon. But after a crash checking on one of the harvesters, he discovers another version of himself.

Everything I find worth discussing in the review demands basically full spoilers. It’s a simple story. You shouldn’t read this review until you watch the movie.

Spoilers ahead!

This is a surprisingly sweet, lightweight science fiction movie about corporations, cloning, and acceptance. The lunar mining corporation cloned the one original astronaut, Sam Bell, and kept hundreds (or more) of him in stock so they’d never need to train another. Each Sam works for three years. The clones are not designed to survive beyond this point. They degrade in the last month of the contract rapidly.

Whether using clones is *actually* an effective cost-control measure isn’t clear, nor does it seem to be important. Simply digging out the facilities to store all those clones would be humongously expensive. I have to think Sam Bell was a uniquely good choice for solo work on the lunar surface; the relative ease with which he handles the surprises of the story suggest he’s way more emotionally rugged than I am. So maybe they just wanted to keep the perfect guy as long as possible.

I think it’s safe to say that’s all meant to be symbolic more than anything.

Moon doesn’t spend much time grappling with the corporate morality on-screen. That said, the distinctiveness and humanity of each clone is likely meant to imply this choice is wrong.

The director and writer, Duncan Jones, could have chosen to go somewhere a lot more psychological with this. Marital troubles due to Alpha Sam’s personality flaws are only ever touched upon. Once we’ve learned the full truth of Sam1 and Sam2’s roles in the mining operation, there isn’t much time spent processing the enormity of their limited lives. Minor clashes between Sam1 and Sam2 are resolved with some annoyance and self-struggling, but it doesn’t reach the level of real conflict. I think I’d be interested in the version of this movie where the push-and-pull between the two Sams makes them develop into a better version of Sam overall.

But that’s not the story Moon is telling. These things are placed just out of reach of the story.

Instead, it’s a cozy narrative told in a sparse environment with only one real actor ever on screen; Sam Rockwell’s charisma is effective for keeping us entertained the whole time. He does well depicting all the facets of himself. In a way, this narrow lens feels like it belongs on a stage more than it belongs on the movie screen. I can easily imagine the 00s retrofuturistic moon base as a set. Is Broadway listening to me? (No.)

The outcome is a warmly sad story to watch, though — if only because of how tenderly Sam and Gertie, the robot employed in Sam’s care, come to tend one another. Gertie’s an asset of the corporation as much as Sam. It’s complicit in gaslighting the clones throughout the course of their three-year contract. But once the veil is lifted for Sam1 and Sam2, Gertie becomes an accomplice to them, seeking to provide the best care possible: Gertie gives them answers and passwords and anything else they need to live their fullest little clone lives.

As Sam1 degrades, Sam2 goes from treating him with irritation to sweetness. He tries to keep him warm and comfortable. He seeks a way to help Sam1 get to Earth, until realizing that won’t work. Watching Sam2 try to keep a hat on Sam1, shivering from organ failure, is the most bittersweet display of compassion. Obviously each of these clones doesn’t deserve the false semi-life that has been foisted upon them, though the movie doesn’t make too much drama about it, either.

A soul seems to be implicit in the clone Sams. When Sam1 begins degrading, he hallucinates his adult daughter-on-Earth repeatedly, which is someone he could only envision if he had some kind of connectivity to his Earthbound family. Sam2 also prays when he first gets into a pod intending to escape. These are spiritual men. Knowing they were manufactured as adults doesn’t change anything.

Ultimately, the clones empower themselves to choose their own fates. Sam1 accepts the end of his contract (and life) to spare two other clones premature death; Sam2 finds his way to Earth to live a life. Travel, maybe. Meet the daughter Alpha Sam fathered on Earth.

While I find that the simplicity of the story leaves me with more question than answers, science fiction is often at its best when it leaves you thinking, and Moon is one of the best. It’s aged well in fifteen years. I think it will remain timeless in its way, and leave generations of cinemaphiles asking questions about humanity.

(image credit: Sony Pictures Classics)

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