Friday, January 14, 2011

Moon Movie

Several months ago some friends recommended that I watch a recent science fiction movie that had just become available for instant viewing on Netflix. It was called simply Moon with Sam Rockwell playing the lead role. In fact, it is almost the only role save for a computer named GERTY, voiced by Kevin Spacey, and obviously tailored to recollect HAL from 2001 down to the round camera eye with a glowing dot in the middle. Spacey is a good choice in that respect because he is able to mimic the calm and calculating voice of his predecessor computer quite well, but there are two glaring deviations. For one, the camera eye has a blue dot, not a red one, and second, the computer is so uncannily intuitive in its understanding of emotions and proper responses to them that it is difficult to believe it is actually a computer at all. It even uses emoticons to display its computed "feelings". It seems to genuinely care about Rockwell's character, also named Sam. This I believe is designed to provide a contrast that makes us wonder, up until the last minute, about whether the computer really does have Sam's interests in mind or not. But let's back up a bit.

Sam, it appears, is the sole inhabitant of a space station on the moon about 20 years in the future set up by a company called Lunar Industries for the purpose of mining Helium-3. Let's just stop there a minute since this is the only real science oriented aspect of the film. Why go through all that trouble to mine an isotope of Helium? I credit this film with actually prompting me to research this since it is not actually explored in great detail in the film. It turns out that H-3 can be used as an energy source in a fusion reactor. "So what?", you say, "I though fusion took too much energy to get started for it to be worth the trouble". And so it is with H-3, however, it has at least two desirable properties. It is a clean nuclear fuel, which means it does not produce toxic waste that must be disposed of (or at least a great deal less of it). It can also spontaneously generate electricity from the fusion reaction because of the release of a charged proton, in addition to the usual heat energy to make steam to run a generator. Apparently, a small amount can go quite a long way. I don't know all the details but the point is that people have seriously looked into this as a viable technology. There is one major problem, however, which is that H-3 is a very rare isotope, and producing it artificially takes too much energy to be useful. And this brings us back to the moon, which has been found to be relatively rich in H-3, especially on the dark side, which is where Lunar Industries has set up their mining operation. At least someone did their homework, except for the fact that the amount of H-3 that would be required to operate even a major city would require several tons of the stuff to be transported back each year, and it's not even clear it could be mined in that quantity. Still, it is an interesting possibility, one that has a well written entry about it on Wikipedia.

So how does one man run an entire mining operation? Well, he doesn't. Most of the station is managed by GERTY the super computer and a fleet of automated harvester mobiles. Sam's main job is to perform maintenance and collect canisters of H-3 from the mobiles to send via launch capsule back to earth. We start at the end of his 3-year term where he is eagerly awaiting his trip home, and then something goes terribly wrong. The rest of the film involves a crazy set of disconnected events that have both Sam and the viewer trying to figure out what is going on, which turns out to be a huge ruse partly foisted on him by GERTY. I don't want to spoil this one too much here because half the fun is in the mystery, and it ends with some nicely heroic acts by both Sam and his computer companion.

Is it a good film? At first, I didn't think too much of it except that it was kind of fun and kind of original. It almost doesn't take itself seriously - like an allegorical satire. But I found that it grew on me over time. There are several notable aspects besides the ones already mentioned. Despite the other-worldly environment, it has a very real feel to it because Sam's character is written, initially, to be nobody real special. Just some guy passing the time. His frustrations and responses are sometimes clever, sometimes desperate, but always things you or I might actually do or say, and this is conveyed very nicely by actor, director, and writer. It allows them to do things that would normally be taken as straight satire and make us laugh as if it were happening to the guy next door. The writers also do not try to over explain things by putting dialogue in the characters' mouths. There are times when Sam has figured things out before we do and yet we can only guess this by his behavior. Other filmmakers might be tempted to have the protagonist think to himself out loud or something. Regarding Sam's character, there is also some amazing camera trickery that I still can't even figure out. The sequences on the moon's surface are executed rather nicely (except for a very obvious goof with the starfield backgrounds). The images of the harvesters silently spewing moon dirt behind them which rises much higher than normal due to low gravity still sticks in my mind. Finally, the soundtrack is pretty neat throughout. So, all in all, I think it is a better film than it might be given credit for. At least you can say it is unique, and one I think I would recommend as an evening's entertainment. All the stuff I have not gone into I'll save for the comment section later on down the road.

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