With the recent 40 year anniversary of the first Apollo mission to the moon, I had an opportunity to read an account from the media-proclaimed “loneliest man since Adam”, Michael Collins. He was the astronaut who had to pilot the command module, and remained in orbit around the moon while Aldrin and Grissom landed on the surface and got all the glory.
Being farther from any humans than anyone before him, enclosed in a tiny capsule smaller than a walk-in closet, and out of even radio contact whenever he passed behind our planet’s satellite, you’d think he’d be feeling very isolated. Turns out, not so much.
I know from pre-flight questions that I will be described as a lonely man (”Not since Adam has any man experienced such loneliness”), and I guess that the TV commentators must be reveling in my solitude and deriving all sorts of phony philosophy from it, but I hope not. Far from feeling lonely or abandoned, I feel very much a part of what is taking place on the lunar surface. I know that I would be a liar or a fool if I said that I have the best of the three Apollo 11 seats, but I can say with truth and equanimity that I am perfectly satisfied with the one I have. This venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two.1
But still, to this day, the idea of space exploration being the loneliest pursuit persists in fiction and film.
Take, for example, “Moon”, Duncan Jones’ debut film. In it, we are introduced to Sam (played by Sam Rockwell). He has taken a 3-year contract with Lunar Industries to be the sole human worker at a helium-3 mining operation on the moon. He has a companion of sorts in GERTY, the computer that helps run the station. But that’s the only interaction he’s had for 3 long years; and let’s face it, GERTY’s empathetic words, when provided by Kevin Spacey’s sarcastic voice and illustrated by comical cartoon faces on GERTY’s one video display, aren’t much comfort. Sam is two weeks from the end of his contract.
Sam’s loneliness is assumed, and underscored by scenes showing him viewing videos from home of his wife; he’s not allowed two-way communication because of a faulty relay satellite that the company has not yet repaired. He’s shown doing his job of directing the giant mining robots. He’s shown running on a treadmill; an international symbol of solitude and drive. He burns his hand with hot coffee when he thinks he’s seen someone else, a brunette woman, in his lounge, a woman that, to my knowledge, does not appear again for the rest of the movie.
Then one day, when he’s out checking on one of the mobile mining machines, there’s an accident, a bad one. He wakes up in the infirmary, under the watchful eye of GERTY. Sam’s confused and slow to recover. And his burned hand is fine.
GERTY and the bosses back home seem unconcerned about Sam’s inability to work, and they send a rescue mission to repair the damaged mining machine, but Sam wants to go outside. He thinks something’s wrong, and after arguing with GERTY he finally manages to contrive a reason to go out via sabotage. Once out there, he finds something… extraordinary.
I’m loathe to give anything away, even though the trailers for this movie have given away this crucial plot point. If you are considering this movie, do yourself a favor and don’t see or read any more; just see it.
The cinematography of the lunar surface is stark and beautiful and reminds me (intentionally I’m sure) of the stark black and white videos sent back from the Apollo missions. The large mining machines look like nothing but Jawa Sandcrawlers crossed with farm vehicles. The station, all white panels and stainless steel cabinets and low ceilings, remind me of the interior of the Discovery from 2001 – and of course, GERTY is a grudgingly anthropomorphized HAL from that same movie.
There are probably plenty of other sci-fi inside jokes throughout the film, but that gives it a familiarity; it inhabits the mental space where many sci-fi movies have come and gone. But the story that’s being told is a subtle one, different from past summer blockbusters. It’s a story about identity and humanity. I know, I know, that sounds like bullshit psychoanalysis but I’m not going to give anything away, dammit!
The movie’s conclusion was both unsettling and utterly expected, and ended the movie but left me wanting to know more. What was the ultimate goal of Lunar Industries? Where did all this technology come from? What would happen to Sam?
We’ll never know. And that’s a brave stance for a filmmaker to take.
I recommend this movie.