Where Are We Now: MOON, 10 Years In Retrospect

|Benjamin Savard|

Art by Benjamin Savard

[ S P O I L E R S ]

The power of Moon is in its subtlety. Science fiction is best known for grandiose visions of the future: unfathomable leaps in technology, powerful alien beings, and conflicts beyond the confines of earth. But Duncan Jones’ 2009 film fits into the tradition of speculative stories told on a smaller scale. Moon limits the scientific progress to a few impressive but feasible jumps and keeps its focus almost entirely on one man in one location. The differences between the film’s reality and our own are minor compared to many others in the genre. What makes Moon’s future interesting aren’t the things that change, but the things that remain the same. Ten years ago Jones presented a vision of the future where technology has taken a plausible route toward immense progress but where corporations still attempt to exploit underclasses for profit. 

There was a time when “energy” was a dirty word. When turning on your lights was a hard choice. Cities in brownout, food shortages, cars burning fuel to run.

The minute-long promotional video that opens the film describes the global threats that come from the burning of fossil fuels. For audiences in 2009 and 2019 alike, this isn’t science fiction, it’s reality. The calm narration is accompanied by real footage of war, famine, and pollution. Through this, Jones signals that the world we are entering is firmly rooted in the one we know. The issues of this fictional world were once the same as ours: climate change, conflict over resources, and ecological crises. 

“But that was the past” says the Lunar Industries’ narrator of our problems. The answer is the company’s breakthrough in fusion power. With clean, ample energy provided by the moon’s stores of helium-3, the scarcity and environmental degradation of the early 21st century is no more. It would seem that we, as viewers, aren’t entering some dystopian future, we are getting out of our dystopian present.

The sequence fits the mold of many predecessors: speculative fiction films often borrow the credibility and assumed objectivity of newsreels to quickly establish settings. But unlike Citizen Kane’s “News on the March” or the riot montage in 28 Days Later, Jones begins the film with an advertisement. Moon’s introduction is told from a specific perspective: that of the company. The video’s authoritative voice mimics the tone of a news anchor, pushing the audience to believe the general truth of the future being shown. But the more we learn about the company later in the film, the more we question their authority. We felt like we were being informed in the introductory video, when we were really being sold something. Lunar Industries promised salvation from some of the world’s biggest problems, but they did not tell us the cost.

Jones expressed a desire to make a science fiction film for a sci-fi-literate audience — a film that would play with genre expectations and explore “fundamental human questions.” When writing and directing Moon, he achieved this by limiting the story’s scope. Locations are kept to only the moonbase and one rover. Technologies are either upgrades to existing tech or now ones based in sound theory. Most importantly, there are only three major characters: Sam I , Sam II, and Gerty. As a result, the setting feels plausible and intimate, the characters feel three-dimensional and realized. Thus the film provides Jones with a sandbox where he can play with tropes, subvert expectations, and ask the fundamental question: how much “humanity” does one need to deserve human rights?

Not one of the three major characters in Moon is conventionally human. Jones focuses the story on two clones and a robot who is intelligent but “not fully sentient.” Cloning and AI represent two very different ways of attempting to replicate humankind, and Jones uses our expectations of each to explore the characters’ humanity. Sam I and Gerty appear first. Upon introduction, we have no reason to doubt Sam I’s humanity and we have no reason to believe in Gerty’s. Sam I looks and acts like a conventional human and Gerty sounds and acts like a cross between Siri and HAL 9000. It is only as the story progresses that Jones flips these initial impressions. With the clone reveal, the film casts doubt on Sam’s authenticity. Through Gerty’s unexpected choices, we understand it is more human than it first appeared.

Despite the questions raised about who’s the “real” Sam, the film strongly affirms that the cloned Sams are just as human as the original. In fact, the emotional weight of the film is predicated on an acceptance that clones are beings worthy of full moral consideration, despite their artificial genesis. Jones helps to ensure this by keeping the perspective of the film with the Sams and depicting their human qualities beyond any doubt: moral reasoning, emotional pain, altruism, etc. These story choices urge the viewer to align themselves with the clones and understand that they don’t deserve the life that Lunar Industries has forced upon them. 

Gerty’s humanity is more ambiguous. Jones himself characterized Gerty’s actions as just part of its programming. However, the choices that Gerty makes in order to lead Sam II to the truth go beyond Jones’ characterization. Letting Sam II go outside and then giving him the password to the video system both explicitly go against its programming. When asked about Gerty’s inspiration, Jones pointed in part to the philosopher Daniel Dennet’s work on applying moral philosophy to machines. Dennet posits that any artificial being with self-awareness is functionally equivalent to a human, morally speaking. Gerty might not have human-level sentience, but its actions indicate that it has agency and a moral compass. This is what makes the decision to let Sam II wipe its memory so meaningful. Gerty downplays the effects, but in order to give Sam a chance at survival it is willing to lose its relationship with Sam and revert to a more primitive version of itself. It is only through the combined sacrifices of Sam I and Gerty that Sam II is able to escape: two artificial beings tapping into their humanity to help combat injustice. But what to make of that injustice?

The conflicts at the heart of Moon are undergirded by a quest, not for knowledge or human advancement, but profit. Internally the Sams struggle to understand their identity and externally they struggle to escape the moonbase. In both circumstances, Lunar Industries is the true enemy. The company created them, lied to them on an existential level, and forced them to work under false pretenses. The film’s introduction made Lunar Industries seem like the ideal capitalist solution to the world’s problems: The company has solved the energy crisis, helped avert global conflict, and counteracted climate change. And yet, they still engage in nakedly evil practices to pad their bottom line: Lunar Industries fabricated their own workforce in order to enslave them. 

A generous reading of the company’s actions might suggest that they genuinely believe that clones are not fully human and thus their exploitative practices are morally acceptable. However, the film provides explicit evidence that Lunar Industries knows better. They do not just clone Sam, they implant his memories into every subsequent copy. The false beliefs instilled in the clones — that each one is naturally human, he has a family to return to, and he will live a normal lifespan — are tools of control. Lunar Industries knowingly causes emotional distress to squeeze productivity out of their employees. The company must believe in Sam’s humanity because they use it as a weapon against him. What makes their treatment of the clones even more morally abhorrent is that it is clear that they would still be incalculably profitable without it. No company can hold 70% of the earth’s energy market and not have the funds to hire a reasonable number of workers for that moonbase. The company already has unfathomable profits and chooses to abuse human rights to add just a little bit more. Amongst all the fictional changes to reality in Moon, it is still a world where corporations exploit underclasses, even if they have to manufacture them. 

Moon had its wide release in the aftermath of the financial collapse. The film received much acclaim for its “scientific realism” even from aerospace engineers after a screening at NASA. However, in the midst of the great recession, the film felt just as sound in its social realism. The subprime mortgage crisis had demonstrated that there was no depth to which financial institutions wouldn’t stoop when defrauding working-class people. The unemployment rate hit its nadir while Moon was still in theaters. Sam traded three years with his family for a steady paycheck. The desperation that must have led him to that choice seemed all too real to audiences in 2009.

In the final sequence of the film, Sam II is able to make his escape. As he flies off, we hear scraps of news bulletins relating to the fallout from his arrival. The first of these states that Lunar Industries stocks are falling, hinting that the public might feel the same way as we do about the treatment of the clones. Jones himself described the film has having a “hopeful ending.” However, the last news snippet comes from a broadcast of another sort and muddies the waters about Sam II’s future:

You know what? He’s one of two things: He’s a wacko or an illegal immigrant. Either way, they need to lock him up!

The line is played for laughs. It was written to parody of a type of conservative media that was familiar to audiences in 2009. That year, The O’Reilly Factor was the #1 show on cable news. Rush Limbaugh was the highest rated voice in talk radio. Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity had both just started their own solo shows on Fox News. The line could have been lifted straight from the desk of Stephen Colbert, who had recently won an Emmy for a similar caricature. I laughed at that line the first time I saw the film. I distinctly remember telling my friends that Moon was great and citing the final scene as what clinched it for me. Ten years on, the line no longer feels like satire.

Conservative media, by definition, has a slant. But was in the years after President Obama took office that they shed even the vaguest attempts at fairness or veracity. This accelerating decline can been seen in such fabricated scandals as Michelle Obama’s “proud of my country” line, President Obama saluting troops while holding a cup, and Hillary Clinton coughing. It is even more evident when examining the baseless conspiracies that right-wing media have turned mainstream: birtherism, death panels, Benghazi, private email servers, migrant caravans, and others. Fox News and like-minded talk radio have spent the past ten years leaning fully into the grift and white nationalism at the heart of American conservatism. And they have managed to set the national news agenda while doing it. (Not one of the above citations is from conservative sources because nonpartisan outlets have allowed conservative media to dictate the definition of “newsworthy,” lending legitimacy to right-wing lies and Trump’s agitprop.) 

In the decade since Moon premiered, Fox News and conservative radio have slid from easy-to-parody to impossible-to-parody. The film’s final lines are meant to be funny, but in a literal sense, they are an attempt to dehumanize and otherize Sam II as a pretense for “locking him up.” Far from being science fiction, this is the central way that conservative powers have justified the incarceration of millions of black, brown, and economically vulnerable people. It is part of the method they have used in stoking white resentment into greater power and greater inequality. The notion that Fox News would argue against the humanity of an enslaved human clone to help boost the profit of a private corporation is as plausible as any part of the film. We have seen how conservative media treats people who deviate from the traditionally white, cishet, male norm they propagate; is there any doubt how they would treat someone who deviates from the notion of “traditionally human”?

In Moon, we see only the quickest glimpses of the world back on earth: two video calls and two pieces of broadcast media. The film’s limited scope is what allows Jones to “focus on what it is to be a human being” — exploring the moral questions raised by Sam’s cloning before affirming his humanity beyond any doubt. The messages we hear from earth are brief, but serve as vital context for Sam’s story. The opening video establishes the time and place he inhabits, the video calls reveal the ways he has been deceived, and the final broadcasts hint that his struggles will continue once the credits roll. Since the film was released, however, these messages resonate in new and significant ways. There have always been organizations willing to cause suffering for money and Moon is predicated on the idea that there always will be. This seemed plausible in 2009 and after another decade of corporate malfeasance, it feels just about inevitable. Most striking of all, Moon’s final lines subtly predicted the exact means by which conservative media would justify that suffering and sell it to audiences for a share of the profits. 

Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon and Michelle Baroody

Moon begins playing at the Trylon on Sunday, June 30 thru Tuesday, July 2. To purchase tickets or for more information, please visit the website.

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