This article reveals the explained plot and the detailed events in Duncan Jones’s Moon, revealing its meaning and storyline. We recommend you to read it only after watching the movie, and not before, in order to preserve the pleasure of the first vision.
What can happen when a man literally meets himself, discovering that he is in every sense a different person from who he thought he was?
Moon is a film born almost by chance, thanks to a series of lucky coincidences. In the spring of 2007, director Duncan Jones is working on casting Mute, the controversial tech-noir who landed on Netflix after nearly two decades of failed attempts, when he first met Sam Rockwell. The two agree on the strength of Mute’s script but fail to find an agreement for the part: Rockwell insists on getting the role of the bartender protagonist, while Jones sees him only in the role of the perverse Duck Teddington (who years later will go to Justin Theroux). Determined to have Rockwell in the cast of his debut film, Jones decides to temporarily put Mute aside and write from scratch and in a few weeks a completely different subject, based on a dream he has in common with the American actor: to make a science fiction film with a vintage soul, following a trend that includes Silent Running, Outland and Alien: that science fiction made up of models and practical effects, today almost completely disappeared from the big screen.
Thanks to the work of a close-knit team and the writers’ strike in autumn 2007, which freed Shepperton Studios for a few months, Moon went into production at the beginning of 2008 (filming lasted only 33 days) and a year later he secured the worldwide theatrical distribution by Sony Pictures Classics, following a triumphant premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
“Where are we now?” reads the commercial at the opening of the film. We are in the very near future, in which a powerful multinational called Lunar Industries has solved one of the essential problems of our time: the lack of sufficient energy to meet the pace of our development. Thanks to an isotope called Helium 3, in fact, the Lunar is able to provide clean energy to the world and its inhabitants. Helium 3 is present on earth in extremely limited quantities, while on our moon it is so abundant that it is able to satisfy the entire earth’s needs: hence they need to extract it directly from the lunar rocks, which can be done through complex extraction platforms called harvesters. The extraction process is almost entirely automated: only one technician, on a three-year mission, is required to check the regular operation of each machine.
Sam Bell (Rockwell, in a state of grace) is the lunar worker, a loyal employee of Lunar Industries who monitors the extraction of Helium 3 and is responsible for sending the precious isotope to earth (via spacecraft). Sam is at the end of his contract: he has only two weeks left and he will be sent back home, with a large salary. His wife and a young daughter wait for him, and he never heard his daughter’s voice live. To keep him company in his home among the moon rocks there is a multifunction robot named Gerty, who communicates with him not only with an artificial voice (originally that of an icy Kevin Spacey) but also with the aid of a display in which emoticons appear, corresponding to the mood he wants to convey.
The first minutes of the film show scenes from Sam’s ordinary life: we see him when he checks the extraction process done by the harvesters, he goes to the collection point aboard a rover and also while listening to the latest video message from his wife Tess (Dominique McElligott) and daughter Eve (Rosie Shaw), during which we understand that the couple had gone through a period of crisis before his departure. In his lunar stay, Sam also devotes himself to some hobbies, such as gardening and building a model of a city.
However, not everything is working smoothly: the video message transmitter of his base has been broken shortly after his arrival, three years earlier, and consequently he cannot send news to his family.
As if that weren’t enough, Sam begins to suffer from hallucinations and nightmares. While aboard one of the rovers, his recurring hallucination (a mysterious girl dressed in yellow) causes him to lose control of the vehicle and crash into a harvester. Sam’s awakening takes place in the infirmary, where Gerty informs him of a small accident and takes care of him.
The calm does not last long, because Sam immediately realizes that something is wrong: after seeing Gerty talking live with some Lunar executives through the transmitter he believed to be broken, he decides to trick him and leave the base with an excuse, to head towards the damaged harvester. The discovery is chilling: inside what remains of the old rover that crashed shortly before, Sam finds another himself, unconscious.
The twist in the screenplay at this point, less than thirty minutes into the film, is brilliant: the viewer already had all the clues to understand that something was wrong, because the Sam who wakes up in the infirmary has neither the burn on his hand (obtained during the first hallucination) nor the wound on his face caused by the second accident, as well as his pressurized suit for lunar walks is very clean, while the one seen a few moments before was dirty and worn by three years of work. We therefore find ourselves with two Sam Bells on the scene, the one seen a few minutes before and the new one: they are both clones, created by Lunar in order to have free labor and lower costs.
Through their character differences we discover that the Sam Bell who just left for the lunar mission was a much more impulsive and aggressive man than the one who spent three years alone on the moon: we therefore study the complex psychology of a person who in fact never appears in the film, since we only see his clones.
Another element of great interest in the film is the robot Gerty, which presents an interesting insight into the rules of robotics by Isaac Asimov: programmed both to serve the Sam Bell clones, and to obey the orders of the Lunar, when Gerty finds himself two different Sam, he makes a choice, deciding to place the clones’ orders in front of those of the company. Thanks to his help, in fact, the two Sams discover not only that, as clones, all their memories are synthetic memories of the original Sam Bell (so they will have neither wives nor daughters waiting for them at home) but also that the duration of their cycle vital is only three years, at the end of which they are literally incinerated by the vehicle in which they enter, believing they are going home, only to be replaced by a new substitute already present at the base: in fact they find the nursery where 156 clones are stored waiting for a future awakening, like a spare part.
The problems do not end there, not only because old Sam (who is showing symptoms of poisoning from space radiation) begins to have a sudden physical decay, but also because a rescue unit is on the way to formally repair the harvester, while in practice they must also get rid of the corpse of the old Sam (no one knows that he survived and that the two clones met: if they were to find out they would kill them). With the slow and inexorable arrival of the rescue unit, the film turns into a sophisticated thriller that is not based on improbable escape plans, but on a rigorous writing: the two Sams decide to awaken a third clone, initially thinking of killing him and placing him in the damaged rover, but changing their mind afterwards (“We can’t kill, you know”).
Meanwhile, the old Sam is getting closer and closer to death: shortly before he managed to call “home”, discovering that years have passed since his brief memories, that Tess is dead and Eve (now played by Kaya Scodelario, the same woman in yellow of his hallucinations) is close to adulthood. Now dying, he gets deposed by the new Sam in the damaged rover, waiting for the rescue team to find him.
Meanwhile, the new Sam prepares a desperate escape plan but without alternatives: his only way to return to earth is through the helium 3 spacecraft. He knows that no one must be informed of his escape (otherwise, when he is found, he will find a team ready to kill him) and that he will not be safe until he is on the ground and away from the Lunar. His only chance is to have Gerty awaken a third clone and escape in the shuttle before the rescue unit notices him: in fact, no one suspects either of his meeting with old Sam or of the fact that he himself is still active (everyone believes that he has not yet moved from the infirmary, as he had been ordered) and, consequently, the discovery of the corpse of old Sam in the rover and of a recently awake clone in the infirmary should not make anyone suspicious and give him an advantage tactical in the escape, which takes place parallel to the landing of the rescue unit. Sam manages to take refuge in the shuttle of Helium 3 just in time, not before having destroyed the frequency jammer that prevented direct communications with the earth (guaranteeing the newly awakened clone the possibility of communicating with terrestrials). Old Sam dies aboard the rover just before being found by the rescue unit: the last thing he sees is the glow of the ship which leaves in the night, destination Earth.
The film closes with images of the new Sam’s journey to earth, while rumors from news and television programs give us a flash-forward of what will happen: he will be able to save himself and reveal to the world the deception of the Lunar, creating a scandal, but his fate is not entirely clear because the possibility of an illegal immigration charge hangs over him.
The meanings and aesthetics of the film
Despite being a first work, in Moon we already find all the distinctive features of Duncan Jones’ cinema well defined: the plot revolves around a man, who carries out an apparently normal job in a very special context (Moon’s lunar worker, the soldier in the time loop of Source Code, the warrior orc in a parallel land in Warcraft and the mute barman in the futuristic Berlin in Mute) and who, at a certain point in the story, realizes in a traumatic way that at the center of his life there is a gigantic deception that makes his certainties collapse.
What makes the film extremely interesting is the relationship that is established between the two clones (thanks to an incredible performance by Rockwell, among the best of his career) who are two different characters but, at the same time, the same person: a difficult relationship, made up of verbal and physical clashes that over time will turn into collaboration and trust. It is the scheme of a buddy movie inserted in a alien and alienating context, on a moon now owned by a multinational that has no ethical limit to the logic of profit, so much so that it allows itself to build human beings already prepared for their task and perfectly expendable, all for the sole need to save on the cost of new personnel training: a logic that is very reminiscent of cyberpunk themes, in a film that has nothing of the cyberpunk aesthetic.
These clones can only remember the replicants of the timeless Blade Runner (not surprisingly Jones’s favorite film ever), of which Moon could almost be a sort of apocryphal prequel, narrating the escape from an extramundial colony; it is no coincidence that in Mute (which also pays homage to Blade Runner in aesthetics and shares the same narrative universe with Moon, while narrating a completely disconnected story) we will discover new fragments of the story of Sam Bell and his clones, who arrived on the earth did not find any blade runner units to withdraw them, but an international liberation committee (Free the 156, we read on some posters on the streets of Berlin) that brought Lunar Industries to trial (we see a funny fragment of that process in a very short scene from the film, where the original Sam Bell also appears for the first time). A different fate for the heroic Gerty, on the other hand, who short-circuited following the abandonment of the base.
To explain the reason for Sam’s hallucinations on the base, which allow him to see his daughter grown up without obviously recognizing her, Jones brought up the “twin brothers theory”, which would sometimes be able to perceive the emotions of the brother even when he’s far away: in the case of the clones this bond would be even stronger, so as to allow the clone on the moon to see what the original Sam sees on earth.
Another great distinguishing feature that makes this film so special is its aesthetics. For this reason Moon has a “second father” in addition to Jones, who is the set designer and designer Gavin Rothery, also a newcomer to the cinema after a long career in the world of video games and concept design: inspired by the best space science fiction of the seventies and working at a very fast pace, Rothery designed the entire environment of the film in a few months, from the entire moon base (indoors and outdoors) to the vehicles used throughout the story, from the robot Gerty to the suits, documenting all this work in a blog that is a real mine of information for all fans of the more technical aspects of cinema.
Bill Pearson, who was already working on Alien for Ridley Scott thirty years earlier, was involved in the practical realization of the models.
To give the final touch to the atmosphere of the film we find the soundtrack by Clint Mansell (one of his best works), admittedly halfway between Philip Glass and John Carpenter, which alternates moments of pure tension with others of poignant melancholy.
The result of this great teamwork is an absolutely unique film in the sci-fi panorama of the 2000s, always poised between past suggestions and more current themes than ever. A film that talks about the greatest risks of our times without ever forgetting to entertain. After all, isn’t this the raison d’etre of all the best science fiction films?