Movie Mix

'Moon': New Sci-Fi Movie Indicts Our Culture of Exploitation

Duncan Jones' new film raises profound questions about the nature of our identities, as well as our relationships to our institutions.

Duncan Jones' new film, Moon, opens with a piece of corporate propaganda describing how, in the near future, humanity has moved beyond the multiple environmental and social threats of the early 21st century.

There are no more wars over oil, and no more starvation, thanks to a global network of clean fusion reactors fueled with helium-3, which is mined on the far side of the moon.

The source of this remarkable global transformation is revealed to be in the hands of a single person, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell in an astonishing performance), the solitary employee of Lunar Industries, Inc. For nearly three years, Sam has monitored the mining of helium-3 from a small lunar base, his only companion a highly mobile, ceiling-mounted robot named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey). Owing to an apparent glitch in the corporation's orbiting communications satellite, no direct communication with Earth is possible, leaving Sam with pre-recorded videotapes as his only means of contact with his wife, Tess (Dominique McElligott), and daughter.

At the start of the film, Sam is two weeks away from the end of his solitude. He's counting the days by marking his sleeping quarter walls with happy faces in felt pen, and whiling his time by carving a small town out of wood. Disheveled, pale and clearly near the end of his tether, he begins experiencing hallucinations, one of which leads him to crash his lunar rover into a regolith harvester, apparently to be buried alive.

Immediately, the film cuts to Sam's recovery in the medical bay. Yet no rescue should have been possible. The audience begins to sense that nothing about Sam's existence can be counted on as real.

Filmed for a mere $5 million -- less than most Hollywood films probably spend on catering -- Moon is visually stunning, intelligent and emotionally powerful. It raises profound questions about the nature of our identities, as well as our relationships with each other and our institutions.

The film offers plenty of visual and auditory cues that acknowledge its cinematic ancestry: the computer displays are very similar to those seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Spacey's GERTY seems more often than not to be channeling Douglas Rain's HAL 9000 from 2001.

Beyond these design elements, Moon also joins a long list of science-fiction movies to make use of the "sinister megacorporation of the future" trope. Like Blade Runner, Outland, the Alien films and RoboCop, Moon portrays a society completely dependent on a vast and unscrupulous corporate entity for its economic well-being. In this case, Lunar Industries has almost complete control over not only the Earth's energy needs but Sam's very existence -- so much so that the nature of his existence is in doubt.

However, screenwriters Nathan Parker and Jones do not make Lunar Industries a mere stock villain, but rather use its control over Sam as a way to take Karl Marx's theories on the alienation of labor to their logical extreme.

In his Manuscripts of 1844, Marx proposed that industrial capitalism separated ("estranged" or "alienated") workers from the fruits of their own labour, as well as from any control over their own working conditions, from each other, and, finally, from themselves. He wrote:

"Estranged labor ... turns man's species-being -- both nature and his intellectual species-power -- into a being alien to him and a means of his individual existence. It estranges man from his own body, from nature as it exists outside him, from his spiritual essence, his human existence."

Sam Bell suffers all these miseries. The helium-3 he mines is never actually seen but is blasted back to Earth in tubes. He protests the three-year duration of his solitude but can do nothing about it and is so utterly alienated from his fellow human beings that he can't even talk to them. He can't even say that he "mines" the precious helium-3 produced at the base, because the processes are all automated.

Most significantly, though, Sam comes to realize that he is not who he has always believed he is. He is in fact "alien" to himself and comes to understand that he is as much a product of Lunar Industries as anything else on the base.

While the film certainly raises some interesting questions around what it means to be human, it does something even more demanding: It asks its audience to consider its own willingness to be culpable in Sam's fate.

By immediately establishing the optimistic future and "universal good" created by helium-3 fusion, the film creates a balance sheet onto which we must project the costs of this future. What price would we place on global peace, an end to hunger and universal access to clean energy? Would any of us living in such a future care to know what burdens our comfort and security were imposing on a single human being a quarter-million miles away?

Even now, how many of us ask the same questions of our own material existence -- when many millions of lives are affected? In the backs of our minds we may know our clothes come from sweatshops, our oil from killing fields, our chocolate and coffee via slaves. Yet, feeling powerless on our own to rearrange globalized capitalism, we continue consuming. As Marx foresaw, capitalism has indeed alienated us from our fellow human beings.

However, just as Marx believed that human beings were not just "world determined" but also "world-producing" -- i.e., individuals with agency who have the ability to challenge present conditions -- so too does Sam come to a new and empowered understanding of himself and Lunar Industries. In the film's final minutes, he turns the tables on the company and leaves open the possibility of a very different future.

How different our own future will be from that depicted in Moon will depend greatly on the sort of criteria we will use to evaluate the nature of a good society. As we face threats of war, climate change, ecocide, thirst and starvation, it is apparent that the sort of stability and prosperity offered in the film's opening minutes will not be possible solely as a result of technological advances but will require our globalized civilization to create new and sustainable social and economic arrangements.

Entirely new civilizational processes -- including non-exploitative social and environmental relations -- will be required, ones that will not find acceptable the immiseration of others as the price for prosperity.