Working on the moon
Readers will know that I come back to the subject of space from time to time. Having seen Duncan Jones’ science fiction film Moon this weekend, it’s as good reason as any for a return visit – while trying to avoid any spoilers. As a film, it should be said, there’s a lot to like; an intriguing story, well told, and the production design is dazzling. It pays its respects to other space films, but is, unmistakably, a film of the ‘noughties’. As a piece of futures (it’s set in the mid-2020s) the on-board computer, with more than a nod to HAL and Dark Star, is like the human resources department of a global company – sometimes solicitous and caring, sometimes trying to enforce the bottom line – and the task the workers are engaged in is to harvest energy.
Since this blog is about futures rather than film, however, I’m going to concentrate on the apparent social and economic world of the film, not the movie itself. Sam Bell is reaching the end of a three year contract as a technician, working on his own, on a moon base set up to extract helium. When we (he) visit the “harvesters” working the surface, it’s like nothing so much as a large open-cast mine, dirty and dangerous. The dirty moonsuit he dons when he leaves the base for the first time – shades of Outland – differs from the clean world of 2001, or come to that, the first moon landing.
It takes three days to get home. The communications technology appears to be unreliable. Why someone would volunteer for such conditions is unclear, although there are hints that the job of “astronaut” still has some cachet. Sam seems to be hallucinating a bit after three years on his own. There’s a sharp contrast between the cleanly stencilled base furniture and the unruly plants, pictures, and post-it notes which have accumulated.
The base computer, ‘GERTY’, which (like HAL) appears to be the name of its maker, is solicitous and attentive, as when Sam scalds himself early on. As the story continues, it’s clear that it also has its loyalties to Lunar Industries Inc, which owns the base. Having studied some industrial sociology, I was delighted to see Sam indulge in some old-fashioned industrial sabotage to circumvent a restriction imposed by the computer. There’s a fine corporate moment later, when Sam appears to be about to leave the base for home, when a corporate videogram pops up to thank him for helping to keep Lunar Industries as the leading global provider of clean energy.
In fact, without giving too much away, the corporate model turns out to be more sinister and quite a lot more cost-effective. Overall, it seems to be a plausible and coherent view of a future in which the Moon is harvested to deal with energy shortages on Earth, even if some of the the technical details are left blank (How does the helium reach earth? It’s not a doctorate, it’s a film).
With one caveat: in this plausible and coherent future, it is much more likely that the technicians pulling shifts on the moon will be Chinese, not American. China has a more ambitious space programme than the United States, and China is already buying farmland and other production resources outside of its boundaries. Lunar Industries will most likely be a Chinese company as well.
Finally, without giving away any of the plot, the film turns into a smart reflection on identity and memory. And (in terms of film trends) I liked the fact that the lunar landscape shots owe much more to models than to CGI.