I hadn’t heard of this until a reader in Germany asked me to keep a eye out for it, as it won’t be released in her country, then suddenly I was seeing posters everywhere. This is the first movie by David Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones. And it promised to be a thoughtful sci-fi film in the vein of Solaris and Silent Running, and that’s always appealing. Not that there’s anything wrong with space battles and explosions…
The movie begins with a commercial/exposition film about how clean energy can be produced by mining helium from the moon. Sam Rockwell plays Sam, this guy who is the lone human occupant of this moon base. He keeps these automated harvesters in repair and does whatever else needs doing. He is in the last two weeks of his three-year shift, and is eager to rejoin his wife and toddler daughter on Earth. He is only able to send and receive pre-recorded messages from them, because the satellite is down, and the parent company seems to be in no hurry to fix it. His only company is a robot that hangs from the ceiling, named Gerty, who speaks with the voice of Kevin Spacey.
Soon he starts seeing things. He sees various people around the base, and knows they aren’t really there. One day he is out in one of their little buggies and driving toward a harvester—a big machine that spews out grey moon dust and rock to issue slowly, due to reduced gravity, out the back. He sees a young girl in the cloud of dust, and a moment later has accidentally crashed into the back of the harvester. He falls unconscious.
When he wakes, he is on a medical table, and is clean-shaven [earlier, he had a beard]. Gerty tells him he had a crash, but is okay. A maintenance team is on the way from Earth. Sam soon suspects something off and has to coerce Gerty to let him outside, saying he’ll just check for leaks. Instead, he takes a buggy and goes to the harvester, where he finds the other buggy still crashed… with himself still inside.
He takes his other self, still bearded, back to base. He wakes, and they are a little freaked out by each other, and handle this by kind of being dicks to each other. Meanwhile, Bearded Sam is sick and getting sicker, gushing blood from a relatively minor wound. They ask for answers from Gerty, but get only non-sequiturs. Here and throughout, Rockwell’s interactions with himself are spot-on, and one is able to maintain the illusion that he is actually talking to another of himself.
SPOILERS > > >
Soon the two Sams form a grudging friendship, fueled by their increasing suspicions that they are being had. Now here come the secrets of the film, so if you don’t want to know, skip on out of the spoiler zone. Sickly Sam finds a medical chamber that he goes into for routine maintenance… and discovers a false bottom. Below it is a vast chamber with several Sams, living and dead. They are clones. They are being woken in three-year shifts, and when one dies or breaks down [as it seems that Sickly Sam is doing], the other wakes on the operating table, just as the New Sam did earlier. Their memories of wife and daughter have all been implanted. Live signals from Earth are being jammed, and the company feeds them the pre-recorded tapes they “receive” from Earth, to keep them hopeful. Furthermore, they realize that when the “repair team” arrive from Earth, they’ll kill them both and just awaken a new clone who knows nothing.
At this point the two clones band together, and as a welcome surprise, Gerty doesn’t turn into a Hal-9000 clone and try to thwart them. They find the jamming antennas just out of their work area, and sabotage one. One of the most affecting scenes finds Sam calling home, where he connects with his daughter—now 15. She is a little wigged by his calling, and calls for her Dad, and Sam hears his own voice. His original is still on Earth, living his life!
< < < SPOILERS END
The movie has a rather conventional ending, but that’s fine, since the rest of the movie is so interesting, but again kind of diminishes the whole thing and makes it seem a tiny bit slight in retrospect. But for the most part, the movie succeeds for what it DOESN’T do. The two Sams remain remarkably calm and don’t go into the expected histrionics in the face of their existential crisis. The artificial intelligence computer doesn’t go where one expects it might from countless other movies. The special effects are also straightforward and not there just for show.
And while we’re on the topic of the special effects, I really enjoyed them. They have a distinctive look that fits the overall aesthetic of the film, which is more than you can say for most effects-heavy movies. The moon is shown in silvery grays with a slight sheen of glare. All of the exteriors are shot in such desaturated grays they approach black-and-white photography. Then there are wonderful little effects like the cloud of dust and rock thrown out behind the harvesters, shooting out in slow-motion to simulate the reduced gravity. There are also some good long shots that show large tracts on the moon’s surface that have been mined, and, without any explicit statement, make you think “Oh I see, we’ve harvested all of Earth’s resources, now we’re going to start raping the moon!” One of the first things my friend said to me afterward was that it was too bad the models were so cheesy-looking, but I never had that thought—in fact, quite the opposite.
This movie brings to mind virtually the whole past 30 years of sci-fi films, but one doesn’t feel that it is entirely derivative [unlike something like The Fifth Element, say]. Top of the list are Silent Running and Solaris, but also touched on are 2001, Alien, and, of all things, Outland! The whole mining aspect and the grubby, industrial look of the sets and special effects, as well as the lumbering quality of the machinery, really reminded me of Outland.
Anyway, if you like thoughtful, philosophical science-fiction—which is getting to be a rarity at the movies—you should get out and run to see this one.
Yes! It’s well-made and thoughtful sci-fi.