A solitary astronaut is plagued by memories of events that haven’t happened yet. Or have they? Unwrapping the time loop in sci-fi gem Moon.
What is Moon about?
Chronic energy shortages see a future Earth battling power cuts. Finding Helium-3 on the dark side of the moon is the lucky break that saves the planet.
Up on the Sarang lunar mining base, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is nearing the end of a three-year contract. In two weeks, he’ll be heading back to his wife and daughter on Earth.
But as Sarang’s only human crew member, Sam bears the scars of extreme isolation – jarring hallucinations, for a start.
Following an accident during a routine op, he’s unnerved to discover someone else on the base. This stranger looks exactly like him … and claims to be the real Sam Bell.
The energy deficit
Moon was released back in 2009, and is set sometime in the future – yet its opening voiceover sounds eerily like our present-day energy crisis.
“There was a time when energy was a dirty word. When turning on your lights was a hard choice.”
The advert claims He-3 provides enough energy for 70% of the world’s population. However, it’s a very streamlined operation: Sam Bell runs the entire moon base single-handedly.
Sam is something of a lighthouse keeper – with all the same dangers and consequences. With no live comms with Earth and only a robot for company, Sam has spent years talking to himself. Eventually, that morphs into something far more literal.
After an accident in the lunar rover, Sam wakes up in the base’s infirmary room. At first robot assistant GERTY (Kevin Spacey) won’t let him go outside. When Sam forces the issue, he discovers an injured man in the crashed rover. And it looks exactly like him.
Then his double wakes up – and both men are convinced they’re Sam Bell.
The song Sam’s alarm clock plays, I Am The One and Only, is a cheeky nod to what lies ahead. Sam’s not the one and only – not by a long shot.
Moon contains a series of twists, each one overwriting or updating the previous revelation.
- Sam has been alone on the moon for three years, so his fragmented hallucinations look like the symptoms of extreme isolation (see also Sunshine).
- Far from being alone, he stumbles across his double.
- Both men think they’re the real Sam Bell.
- In fact, both are clones.
- But they’re not the only clones. There are countless others in a secret underground room. Each comes with identical clothes and memories of a life on Earth.
- The moon base can talk to Earth in real time. Signal blockers stop the clones calling home and learning the truth.
- The three-year contract isn’t a short-term employment project – it’s how long clones live.
- The original Sam Bell went home years ago, wife Tess is dead, and daughter Eve is all grown-up.
- Each clone serves a three-year contract … but the cycle has been going on in secret for years.
Lunar Industries has pulled off quite the deception. Of course, it’s all completely unethical. By cloning an employee, they’ve tapped into an endless supply of free labour, turning people into batteries.
To pull it off, they cruelly give the clones false memories of something to live for: a family back on Earth.
The clones are living, breathing humans. Yet each time a three-year contract expires, they’re packed into an ‘escape pod’ … and vaporized.
Shortly afterwards, GERTY awakens a new clone with tales of some amnesia-inducing accident.
Twinned characters and doubles in Moon
Doubling happens an awful lot in film and fiction. It often involves characters who look like opposites, yet function like twins: Heat is a good example of this.
Moon offers a more literal kind of mirroring. When Sam-2 discovers his double in the crashed rover, it’s no lookalike. He finds himself, i.e., a perfect replica of his DNA and [fake] memories.
That earlier play-on-words about Sam-1 talking to himself comes full circle here. The conversations that follow are more instances of talking to oneself (or amongst themselves, even).
But they’re not just carbon copies. The clones represent fragmented parts of a self who combine to create a more functional whole.
When we first meet Sam Bell, (i.e., Sam-1) he’s barely space-worthy. Far from an astronaut at the top of his game, he’s unkempt, unfit and coming apart at the seams.
The closer his expiry date gets, the faster his body disintegrates. As the video logs reveal, this happens to every clone, every three years.
The Sam who wakes up on the base after the accident is much fitter. He would be: Sam-2 is fresh out the box.
Doubles and deception
Although the men initially argue about who gets to go back to Earth, any escape can only come about if they collaborate.
This makes sense for a couple of reasons. They can’t win against a corrupt corporation as individuals; they need to unionise.
But by doing so they also overcome their weaknesses (Sam-1 is sick, Sam-2 sucks at table tennis) to create a more complete self.
They also use a third clone to pull this off. Together they create an illusion that counters the corporation’s fake reality – and it pops the bubble of deception.
In the end, though, the plot can’t break the storytelling rules. Where there are twinned characters, only one can survive (see also The Departed). We can see this coming as Sam-1 deteriorates, leaving Sam-2 to fly home.
Of course, if you want to get finicky about it, Sam dies, leaves and stays behind all at the same time. The plot is about doubles … but the bigger story is of endless repetition.
The escape plan
Sam-2 asks GERTY to wake up a third clone. They mean to put his body in the crashed rover for the rescuers to find. Sam-2 will stay behind as Sarang’s current caretaker, while Sam-1 jets back to Earth in a He-3 launcher.
The company promises to send clones home after three years, so this is a chance to make good on the lie.
It’s quite the sacrifice by Sam-2, however. Not only does staying behind mean a brutally short existence, but Sam-1 is nearing the end of his serviceable life: he’s literally falling apart.
Knowing he won’t live much longer – and that he has no one on Earth to live for – Sam-1 stays behind in the rover. It’s a fair call. He dies before the rescuers reach him.
Meanwhile, Sam-2 escapes in the pod. His final act of hero-vandalism is to reprogramme a harvester to destroy a signal blocking mast, re-establishing live comms with Earth.
As he leaves, the newest clone is waking up to a fresh three-year contract on Sarang. Presumably now that real-time comms are back, it won’t be long before he discovers the truth, too.
The closing broadcasts reveal Sam-2’s arrival is the talk-show topic du jour … and he’s testifying against Lunar Industries.
One of the broadcasts also reveals that while he’s the second clone as far as the plot is concerned, he’s clone number six in the Sarang scam.
Isolation and us
Moon’s main theme is common in science fiction: what does isolation look like, and what does it do to the human psyche?
People need people. Well, some of the time. Without connection, communication and touch, we decline.
At extremes, reality distorts. Or rather, the mind distorts, bending the perception of reality. Total isolation causes hallucinations … often creating companions to stem the loneliness.
This is Moon’s opening gambit. Sam’s hallucinations look like symptoms of isolation; his creation of a companion is the trickery of a desperate mind. Eventually, though, the suggestion of madness is replaced by a darker reality of clone slaves and systemic murder.
Isolation is never far from stories set in space. It reflects our fear of the vastness of the universe, yet is rife with opportunity for personal triumph (The Martian, Gravity). These stories are allegories for our loneliness in the cosmos, and the belief – or hope – in human resilience.
At the same time, isolation is fertile ground for storytelling: hallucinations, distortions, time-loops. What’s not to like? Yet this can be problematic.
Despite being set in a distant, semi-fictional future, Moon – like most sci-fi stories of isolation – is about male protagonist(s). Female characters are merely memories or reasons to go home. Even GERTY, the non-human robot assistant, is voiced by a guy.
Whether this strikes you as significant is your own affair. Still, you have to wonder why we see these roles and realms as jobs for boys in perpetuity, long after the social conventions that first dictated gender rules.
Moreover, while sci-fi repeatedly returns to narratives of solitary humans floating in space, it’s less vocal about social isolation back here on Earth. After all, you don’t have to be lost in space to not feel seen.
Giving the clones false memories is part of a staged reality – a film set, like that of The Truman Show.
The signal jamming towers are ‘props’ that maintain the illusion. With real-time communication on the fritz, Sam can only talk to his wife via recorded video messages.
But the delay is much greater than he can guess. He’s been reincarnated on Sarang so many times that Tess is long dead, and baby Eve is a teenager.
Other ‘cast members’ in this fictional world prolong the deception, including GERTY and his bosses back on Earth.
When Sam-2 wakes up after the rover crash (he’s actually waking up for the first time), GERTY stops him leaving the base. This is supposedly because he’s too weak. In fact, it’s a ruse to stop him finding the previous clone and learning the truth.
This is the real purpose of the rescue mission. They’re coming to dispose of the body and fix the harvester – in that order.
Yet no matter how deep corruption goes, truth bubbles over (in fiction, and sometimes in reality, too). It’s the return of the repressed.
Sam glimpses these ‘reality echoes’ when his tampered memories keep resurfacing. For instance, he sees Eve at her real age … he just doesn’t know it’s her.
The time loop
Sam’s future memories are an interesting phenomenon. He sees things which either haven’t yet happened, or that he couldn’t reasonably know.
This suggests elements of the story that follows have happened before. It’s not just the clone’s lifecycle which is on permanent repeat, but their agony, expiration and escape attempts.
GERTY is the biggest clue this may be the case.
When GERTY tells Sam-1 he’s a clone, the robot’s arm moves to comfort him before he’s upset. This slick, subtle movement suggests either this machine has incredible empathy – or a kind of rehearsed muscle memory.
Incidentally, this scene begins with a heartbroken Sam confessing Tess left him for six months. GERTY’s understated “I know” speaks volumes. Of course he knows: the memories are implants … and he’s likely had this exact conversation with each previous clone, and/or the original Sam.
Similarly, when Sam-1 can’t access his contract details, GERTY appears right on cue to supply the password. The log lays bare the repetition of suffering, with clone after clone reliving the same tortured moments – and all caught on GERTY’s camera, like some twisted home movie. In a way, it is.
So GERTY is a double agent (pun unintended – maybe – it’s hard to keep track). What are we to make of this rogue robot?
GERTY and the riddle of the missing smileys
GERTY 3000 is an interesting, ambiguous character. He covers up the company’s hidden agenda … and his part in it. He lies to Sam, both through omission (by not telling him he’s a clone) and outright when he denies his real-time conversations with the company.
When Sam-1 awakens after his accident, his wall of smiley faces – a countdown to going home – is blank. He draws them back, but we can still see the erased marks.
GERTY thinks Sam-1 is dead, so he cleans and resets the base for his replacement. The new clone is at the start of a three-year stint – so the smileys have to go.
This is a pretty dark manoeuvre. And yet, far from some deep-space villain, GERTY is devoted to Sam.
He manages his emotional welfare, cooks for him, and makes conversation. More significantly, he’s instrumental to the clones learning the truth, and the escape plan that follows.
He even suggests wiping his own memory cache, erasing Sam-2’s existence and escape from the archive.
A very human duplicity
These things transform GERTY from mere machine to human substitute: his voice, his actions, and his icons.
It would be easy to assume these smileys are meant to signify GERTY’s emotional state … but of course, GERTY doesn’t have emotions. He’s a machine.
Perhaps, then, the icons represent the machine’s best guess at what Sam is feeling at any given moment. They encode each conversation, suggesting appropriate responses.
This doesn’t mean GERTY is just nuts, bolts and software, though. In the end, he needs what Sam needs: companionship.
GERTY is a machine, but his programming makes him as human as the clones. He can lie, and he cares about Sam’s welfare – both at the same time. This is a very human duplicity, or state of doubling.
Sam-2’s final protestation is that the clones aren’t programmes, they’re people – and so they are. But the truth isn’t quite so neat. The clones run like software. GERTY cares for the clones. In between lies a no man’s land of heartbreak, hope and the eternal vastness of space.
Moon (2009), directed by Duncan Jones
What to read or watch next
- Gattaca (doubles, space)
- The Double (short story by Fyodor Dostoevsky, or see the 2013 film)
- The Stepford Wives (replacements, capitalism)
- The Truman Show (manipulated reality)
- The Martian (space, isolation, resilience)
- Ad Astra (space, isolation, disorientation)
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (space, computers)
- The Fly, WarGames (computer as character)
- Edge of Tomorrow (time loops)
Picture credit: NASA